By Keith Perrin
Today’s manufacturers are using a mechatronics-based approach to integrate the electronic, mechanical, and software components of their increasingly complex products. Digital prototyping allows disparate engineering teams to work from a single digital model, saving time and reducing errors throughout the design process. The Autodesk solution for digital prototyping enables manufacturers to achieve the full benefits of mechatronics product development.
The need for a new approach
Today’s manufacturers face unrelenting pressure to continuously develop innovative new products. According to a survey of CEOs, two-thirds of executives believe that innovation is vital to the future of their companies. Their concern is understandable; according to one estimate, the products that generate nearly 70% of revenues today will be obsolete by 2010.
In response to this call for innovation, manufacturers have accelerated their adoption of electronics. Research shows that 92 percent of manufacturers now incorporate electronic elements into their products.
The automotive industry provides a prime example. While the proportion of a car’s cost that can be attributed to electronic systems has increased by an average of 8.3% per year over the past eight years, the proportion attributed to mechanical systems has decreased by an average of 3.2%. These trends are broadly consistent across all industries.
As manufacturers respond to the demands of the market, they must deal with the added complexities of synchronizing mechanical, electronic, and software elements into one integrated system. In the process, they must effectively coordinate disparate engineering teams. A mechatronics-based approach can help.
Effective mechatronics product development demands a focus on three key engineering activities:
• Multi-Disciplinary Design and Engineering. Mechatronics refers to the integration of control systems, electrical systems, and mechanical systems. A mechatronics system is not just a marriage of electrical and mechanical systems, and is more than just a control system. It is a complete integration of all of them. Top-performing manufacturers are 3.2 times more likely to allocate design requirements to systems.
• Managing Communication and Workflow. Integration of systems should be coupled with improvements in the coordination between the discipline-specific teams that are responsible for creating individual subsystems.
The often complex inter-relationships between individual sub-systems demand effective communication and clear ownership.7 Top-performing manufacturers are 2.8 times more likely to communicate change among their engineering disciplines.8
• Effective Early Validation. If manufacturers are going to develop cheaper, more reliable, and more flexible ystems, they must validate across the traditional boundaries of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, electronics, and control engineering at the earliest stages of the design process. Top-performing manufacturers are 7.3 times more likely to digitally validate system behavior.
The mechatronics advantage
Manufacturers that harness the best practices of mechatronics can achieve significant benefits. Best-inclass manufacturers are more able to reach their targets for development costs, product revenue, and product quality, and to hit their product launch dates. Such manufacturers can also:
• Add more features and functions.
• Reduce the size, weight, and cost of their products.
• Improve their overall efficiency.
• Leverage adaptive control and diagnostics to improve reliability and reduce maintenance costs.
• Customize or upgrade products by reprogramming embedded firmware.
In addition, a mechatronics-based approach mitigates risk and solves common design challenges such as the slow, serial machine design process; poor communication between machine designers and customers; and risky physical machine testing.
Challenges of adopting a mechatronics approach
As manufacturers focus on improving their mechatronics product development processes, they often face significant challenges:
Finding design conflicts across disciplines depends largely on the knowledge base of the staff—and yet manufacturers list a lack of cross-functional knowledge as their leading challenge. Although hiring issues are partly to blame, manufacturers seldom have design tools that can integrate design data from all the elements that make up a product. As a result, their teams fail to understand the impact of design change across disciplines.
If manufacturers are going to achieve all the benefits of mechatronics product design, they clearly need technology solutions that enable their design disciplines to collaborate and communicate seamlessly, while also helping them identify system-level problems early, verify that all design requirements are met, and predict the behavior of the final product.
Key elements of a mechatronics solution
Ideally, a mechatronics solution should support the following best practices:
1. Multi-disciplinary design and engineering
2. Managing communication and workflow
3. Effective early validation
Multi-Disciplinary Design and Engineering
As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” In product development, knowing what you need is the first step to getting the final product right. Outlining product level requirements is necesssary to achieve the first step in outlining product performance. The ability to drive these key parameters into system and sub-system operational performance goals is often what sets leading manufacturers apart from their peers.
Many manufacturers assume that building a single, integrated design process across all disciplines is the best way to coordinate multi-disciplinary design and engineering so that all product requirements are met.
But statistics show that the extra effort spent on process engineering ultimately goes to waste. Instead, best-in-class manufacturers use separate design processes across disciplines in order to leverage the domain expertise of their designers. However, this requires that they be diligent in coordinating and synchronizing their engineering groups. This synchronization is key.
This approach is a best practice that should be adopted by other manufacturers seeking to improve their mechatronics design processes. From a practical perspective, this will require manufacturers to deploy focused engineering tools that allow individual disciplines to excel at their work, while providing the ability to share information easily. But it is not enough to be able to model these systems. System-level performance is usually a function of the disparate engineering and design needs of various sub-systems. Breaking down a system into its core constituents, therefore, demands some formality. As a result, it is essential to establish clear processes for effectively communicating changes, and to align collaboration and system engineering tools that can help make sure teams communicate changes effectively.
Managing communication and workflow
As manufacturers seek to coordinate and synchronize their separate engineering groups, there are many ways to bring information together. The average company often prefers to generate the bill of materials (BOM) from a customer database application. However, this method requires not only dedicated maintenance and support, but also manual synchronization of design information—making it complex and errorprone for a structure that contains thousands of parts.
Best-in-class manufacturers take advantage of discipline-specific structures for designing products. Rather than maintaining one large database across all groups, companies can use individual, discipline-specific databases that allow groups to manage their workgroup-level data and workflow at a local level.
But even the discipline-specific approach can create problems if manufacturers do not manage it correctly. Ultimately, manufacturers must strike a balance between providing the focus that engineering disciplines require and making certain that the data they create can be brought together easily.
Effective early validation
No one disputes that it is a good idea to resolve integration issues before committing money to tooling and manufacturing ramp-up. Leading manufacturers focus on resolving integration issues early in product development, and maintain this focus right up until verification and testing.
By focusing on validation, simulation, and verification earlier in the development process, manufacturers can avoid the costs and delays associated with resolving integrations later on. But to achieve these benefits, manufacturers must bring together a wide variety of design and engineering information for review. The goal is to synchronize the efforts of larger teams into single design reviews where all pertinent information is available at once. This is just one of the benefits of digital prototyping.
Driving mechatronics product development with digital prototyping
Rather than trying to integrate information from disconnected engineering systems, manufacturers can save time and money by enabling all their teams to work from the same digital model. Today, many best-in-class manufacturers are augmenting traditional physical prototyping by building digital prototypes. By tracking and comparing physical and digital prototype test results, these companies are gaining a deeper understanding of their products and the environments in which they operate—leading to greater overall product quality.
How digital prototyping enables best-in-class manufacturing
According to recent research, best-in-class manufacturers that use digital prototyping outpace averagemanufacturers by:
• Building 50 percent fewer physical prototypes.
• Getting products to market 58 days faster.
• Reducing prototyping costs by 48 percent.
• Freeing up time and resources for greater innovation.13
An action plan for mechatronics excellence
Although manufacturers have been talking about the benefits of digital prototyping for many years, the ability to build and test a true digital prototype has, until recently, been beyond the budgets of most manufacturing companies. In recent years, however, vendors have introduced increasingly practical solutions that are more attainable, scalable, and cost-effective than their predecessors.
Aberdeen Group has identified four key capabilities needed for best-in-class mechatronics product development:
• Implement processes to overcome the lack of cross-functional knowledge and promote better communication.
• Use simulation to identify system-level problems early in the design process.
• Manage design requirements throughout the entire design lifecycle.
• Accelerate the design of system controls with automated software tools and simulations.14
For all of these reasons, manufacturers should look for an integrated engineering suite that enables a digital prototyping workflow.
The Autodesk solution for digital prototyping
The Autodesk solution for Digital Prototyping helps mainstream manufacturers realize the full benefits of mechatronics by allowing them to quickly create and easily maintain a single, digital model. This model connects mechanical and electrical teams by bringing together design data from all phases of development for use across all disciplines. Because the digital model simulates the complete product, engineers can better visualize, optimize, and manage their design before producing a physical prototype.
As engineering teams work on the digital prototype, Autodesk’s data management tools integrate electrical and mechanical components into a single bill of materials (BOM). Using tightly integrated mechanical and electrical information, teams create more accurate 2D and 3D mechatronics designs in less time, enabling manufacturers to get to market faster.
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