Electronic Design

Why Is Mechatronics Hard?

Mechanical + electronics = mechatronics. Simple. Yes? Actually, mechatronics covers a lot of ground and means different things to different designers, ranging from basic motor control of a single device (Fig. 1) to all the control systems within today's complex automotive platforms (Fig. 2).

At one extreme there is a single motor with a minimal number of feedback inputs such as rotation or torque, while at the other, dozens of systems may interact in a number of combinations. Often, one or two designers address the more basic systems while larger systems encompass teams of developers, testers, and quality and safety assurance people.

Larger, more complex systems bring their own difficulties into the mix. But even small or simple systems are a challenge because they blend expertise and training that are taught as separate degrees such as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, embedded programming, and process engineering. Add in some solids and liquids and gases, and you can add chemical engineers and others to the mix.

This means designers dealing with mechatronics need to cross boundaries of expertise on a daily basis. The multicore and simulation issues just make a more complex process even more so even while making a designer's job easier.

Interdisciplinary training at the college level has been steadily improving with some universities providing mechatronic engineering degrees. Others typically allow minors or multiple degrees to address the need for graduates with interdisciplinary expertise. At the heart of most of these programs is real-world engineering experience with handson projects. Of course, simulation is a big part of the curriculum for the same reason it is used in industry—the need for understanding and testing hardware interaction without the need for physical artifacts.

In the past, much of the systems integration was done with real hardware with minimal systems simulation. Now, complete system simulation with a high degree of precision and resolution is the norm, but it will continue to challenge host platforms even as multicore systems open up the opportunity to throw large amounts of computing power at the simulation problem. It will let designers do more, faster, and better.

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