Having just gotten back from the annual extravaganza known as the Consumer Electronics Show, I’m happy to report that the outlook for mechatronics is definitely positive. The integration of electronics and mechanical systems was clearly in evidence at CES, on both the micro and macro level.
To start small, one of the more impressive in-suite demos was presented by Microvision of Redmond, WA. The company has developed what it calls the PicoP engine for projecting video and images onto any reflective surface. The engine consists of a MEMS chip with a mirror that can steer RGB laser light to raster the image onto the surface. An entire system was contained in a case about the size of an iPod. There were also a lot of new game controllers that rely upon the ability to sense motion to provide an extra dimension to gaming, as well as hepatic feed back systems to let you feel the pain.
At the other end of the size spectrum, there were the huge MEMS micromirror projection systems in the Texas Instruments booth. There were also several concept cars from Ford demonstrating the use of electronic systems for control of steering, abs, air-bags, and other critical systems that were once strictly mechanical. This list could continue to grow, but it’s clear that the marriage of electronics and mechanics is still on very solid footing.
I also saw a number of display systems, and while they didn’t rely on mechanics in the larger sense, it was their physical performance that started me thinking about the future of mechatronics. What I was hearing is that this one type of display system, while its appearance was excellent, was having problems related to material stability over time. It was critical to the products success, yet it was something that was only found out once many, many units were in production.
Today we are at a stage where we can simulate the interaction of mechanical and electronic systems with a good degree of accuracy. But when it comes to the performance of materials over time, or in a particular design for that matter, we seem to still be in the dark ages. The materials/chemical engineer can use his or her expertise to suggest what is likely to happen, and has tools for creating new molecular compounds, but I know of no system today that will allow you to integrate that knowledge into the realm of electromechanical design.
Once we’ve tackled the problems that mechatronics poses to unifying electromechanical design, I hope we’ll be able to take the next step into materials science and bring in the ability to alter or design new materials that will fulfill the end requirements of product in new and unique ways. But I guess we have to learn to walk before we can run (and after having been all over the huge Las Vegas Convention Center for CES, I’m happy for now to still be able to walk).