The products we design, produce, and ultimately consume are getting smarter, more versatile, and undoubtedly more complex. You need only pick up your phone to witness a marvel of carefully integrated mechanical, electrical, and software design. But tightly integrating multi-disciplinary design across so many tools, processes, and data management methods has always been especially challenging. That's starting to change dramatically. The world's finally going mechatronic.
The days of an isolated mechanical CAD model and wiring diagram are coming to an end. Reaching true mechatronic nirvana, where the synthesis of electrical, mechanical, and computer science morphs into a tuned, system-level design approach isn't quite so easy. There are some rather difficult obstacles to overcome, some of which include:
- Integrated Development Tools: No one editing tool can rule them all. Tools carefully honed to create geometry aren't the best choices of laying down circuit designs or vice versa. Chances are the answer lies in a closely integrated federation of tools. There are also underlying data management challenges to overcome. Design user interfaces more attuned to system level manipulation across multiple domains is a particularly challenging task to execute well.
- Cross-functional Education and Training: More than a technology problem, there's a human element as well. Engineers are traditionally trained as specialists in specific domains, with deep, often times industry-specific understanding in their chosen practice. But mechatronic design requires a more generalist view. Mechatronic designers have to be comfortable drawing upon cross-functional knowledge to make apt decisions and work with others who must do the same.
- Multi-Domain Communication: Managing mechatronic design is very much a multidimensional puzzle, where optimizing along one dimension often results in undesired regression in another. Then there's the challenge of system versus detail level optimization, especially with regard to meeting established requirements. This delicate balancing act requires tools and process that ensures communication between each discipline and is both succinct and egalitarian.
- Virtualizing Overall System Behavior: Often, understanding system level product behavior requires an initial physical prototype. Virtual Prototyping attempts to do just the opposite, by simulating real-world operating behavior in a virtual environment to a fidelity that allows for sound design decisions. Much progress has been made in this field, and many of today's products incorporate some level of virtual prototyping, but there's still much improvement to be achieved.
Up to now the pressure driving towards multi-domain design tools has been mostly driven by initiatives to reduce design cycle time. And so traction in achieving fine-tuned toolsets for truly integrated mechatronic design have been on a steady, but relatively lethargic pace. On the production side, manufacturing has necessarily been limited to completely different processes (injection molding, machining, PCB fabrication, etc.) that would later meet downstream in assembly. And just when we were comfortable with that, along comes 3D Printing to throw an interesting twist into the whole exercise.
3D Printed Meat Patties
In the annals of 3D printing history along the accomplishments of 3D printed meat patties and 3D printed human ears, we now are approaching the dawn of 3D printed electronics. Early prototypes are simple circuits or queued stop-points in a printing process to allow for the insertion of electrical components, but these early tests are only the beginning. Much research is going into the development of 3D printing resistors, or even batteries. The vision: 3D printing that phone of yours from the bottom up. Such technologies stand not only to revolutionize manufacturing, but accelerating design processes toward a true system-level mechatronic approach.
Part numbering. For most engineers, this two-word phrase is all it takes to conjure up especially strong feelings about what it means to be “right”, and what it means to be very, very “wrong.” We've assembled a handful of our part number greatest hits in this eBook anthology.