The raw materials of mechatronics are basic. Silicon based processors and power semiconductors are among the primary building blocks of the electronic side of mechatronics.
As with most things electronic, the more we use the lower the cost over time. Over the last few years the power of processors used in motor control applications has increased dramatically. Costs for these chips have remained very low, to the point where 32 bit processors are now available from companies like Luminary Micro, STMicroelectronics, and Texas Instruments compete with 8 and 16 bit predecessors.
Power semiconductor prices have been falling for some time. Miniaturized modules for IGBT regulation of 3 phase AC motors have become widely available with most of the required circuitry designed in. These devices will continue to enable the manufacture of AC inverters that are the size of electromagnetic starters with prices that will continue to amaze. Offshore suppliers are delivering low end AC drives around the $100 mark for fractional through 1HP, which will continue to challenge major electrical suppliers.
In the sensor arena, one of the more interesting possibilities is the accelerometer. The impact (pun intended) of the accelerometer cannot be underestimated because it is the one device that makes velocity and acceleration information directly. This is a huge value in motion systems in better describing actual load conditions.
With the advent of the Nintendo Wii, the accelerometer is now one of the most widely used sensors in the world. This will inevitably lead to falling prices for the technology and open a floodgate of applications for the technology.
Where will all this lead? Hopefully to further performance gains for all of us involved in mechatronics technology. Accelerometer feedback offers closed loop measurement of acceleration behavior in loads that previously could not be directly measures.
Decreasing costs for power semiconductors and controllers for electric motors suggest new architectures that will lead to greater energy efficiency and lower overall cost for the many electrically commutated motors technologies.
Despite difficult economic times, there are many opportunities to innovate and be creative. Explore new solutions and discover what the new possibilities make possible in real world applications. That’s what we need to keep moving forward.