The what, why and how of mechatronics

by D. A. Bradley
This article provides an introduction to the basic concepts ofmechatronics. It considers the impact of mechatronics on the process ofproduct design and development and sets out ajamework within which the underlying technical and organisational requirements associated with a mechatronic approach to system design and development can be successfully deployed.

n recent years mechatronics has had a significant and increasing impact upon engineering and engineering education as a defining approach to the design, development and operation of a wide range and variety of complex engineering systems generally characterised in their operation by a high degree of integration between electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, information technology and software. It is however important to note that the mechatronics concept is not just about achieving technological integration but, as suggested by Fig. 1, involves aspects of organisation, training arid rnanageiiieiit and therefore, while emphasising the integration at the systems level of the core technologies, has much in common with a concurrent engineering approach to product development'.

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Mechatronics does, however, face a particular problem in that the breadth of approach, which is one of its greatest strengths, is also a major weakness in that the term has been, and indeed is, used in association with, or referring to, a wide range and variety of engineering systems from machine tools and manufacturing systems to consumer goods and domestic appliances. The result is that the significance and likely impact ofthe adoption of a mechatronic philosophy by a company or organisation has often been neglected, misinterpreted and misunderstood and the possible benefits thereby rejected or ignored. As a consequence of t h s wide interpretation, no agreed definition of mechatronics has emerged, further compounding the problem. Indeed, it often seems that there are as many definitions or attempts at definitions
Fig. 1 A framework for mechatronics

problem definition

MECHATRONICS

industrial design aesthetics

ENGINEERING SCIENCE AND EDUCATION JOURNAL

APRIL 1997

81

both these definitions.Fig. The what o mechatronics f Prior to the introduction of the microprocessor. to consider its impact on the process ofproduct design and development and to outhne a framework wthin which the underlying techmcal and organisational requirements associated with a mechatronic approach to system design and development can be successfully deployed.’~ Ths article is therefore intended to provide an introduction to the basic concepts of mechatromcs.’~ Though differing in form. electronic control and systems thinlung in the design of products and proce~ses. 2 The evolution of mechatronics information technology mechanical \ mechatronics electromechanical +mechanisation + systems _. cr-it is instead to be science or technology ~ P Y fundamental way of regarded as a phdosophy-a lookmg at and doing things. It is therefore important that mechatronics is fioin the very beginning considered not as a separate engineering discipline but instead as an integrating. with each seehng solutions w t h m their own particular domain The advent of the rmcroprocessor and the associated growth in microelectromcs technologies has seen a reversal of this trend towards separation to one of increasing integration. which allows the system to receive and transrmt data The relationshps between individual mechatronic systems or subsystems APRIL 1997 v world environmental interactions Fig. Thus: ‘By definition then. along with the many others that have been produced. share common features in that they emphasise a holistic approach to the achievement of integration at the systenis level as well as the importance of cngineering design. as suggested by Fig 25 It is the resulting ‘transfer of complexlty’ fiom the mechanical doman into electromcs and software that is associated with the introduction of local processing power in the form of the mcroprocessor and its derivatives that can therefore be considered as the major drivlng force in the development of mechatronics The result is complex.t electrical technology f electronics f as thcrc are claimed practitioners! Typical of the definitions that have been produced is that of the EEC/IRDAC Working Party on Mechatronics which states that: ‘Mechatronics is the synergetic combination of precision mechanical engineering. mechatronics is not a subject. the major engineering dsciphnes had tended to become increasingly independent. and by its very nature requires a umfied approach to its deli~ery. electrical and electronic engineering with software engineering and computer technology at all levels of the design pr~cess. 3 A generalised mechatronic system ENGINEERING SCIENCE AND EDUCATION JOURNAL 82 .’~ An alternative definition reads: ‘Mechatronics represents an approach to the design of engineering systems which involves the integration of mechanical engineering. integrated systems whch offer great levels of performance per unit of cost than their largely mechanical predecessors Consider now the representation of the generahsed mechatromc system shown in Fig 3 in which the system is separated into an energetic domain and an information domam Communication with other systems and subsystems is achieved through the medium of the world interface. systems level approach to the design and operation of a wide range of complex engineering products and processes.

the highest consisting of islands ' of automation level of the system. In the case of the camera this means that. each of the following their choice of operating mode. lens and flashgun-are themselves niechatronic systems and the picture. LEVEL then represents an individual CNC inachine or robot together with its internal constitute an independent niechatronic system. 4 An automatic. in the case of the lens and flashgun. such as a joint. The lowest level shown on tronics. schematic form in Fig. LEVEL0. At the level of the human user the camera may be seen and understood as a Both these examples also serve to illustrate a further feature of many niechatronic systems in that operation mechatronic system in its own right. 5 for Individual CNC machine an automated manufacturing Factory level system environment. with in this case the world interface being the user interface by which at the system level is in most instances transparent to the the selection and setting of the system operating user. 5 A mechatronics hierarchy within manufacturing ENGINEERING SCIENCE AND EDUCATION JOURNAL APRIL 1997 83 . \ . Here. connected by a represents the factory as a whole broadband network such as MAP and may be considered as a series Island of automation of discrete 'islands of automation' consisting of CNC connected by a broadband machines and robots linked by a local-area communication network. However. the associated world Communications link being the camera body. the Figure. 3 with. that of composing individual subsystems shown in the figure-body.Fig. a user is fiee to concentrate on the primary task. without the need to worry about the could also be represented by Fig.Island of automation This interrelationship between mechatronic systems at rk CNC machine tool or robot differing levels of complexity is further illustrated by Fig. 4. parameters is carried out. in which case each of the be seen froin the following examples. each of these islands of automation Internal communications can be viewed as a mechatronic system made up of a series of coniputer numerically con. each of which may well 2. At the next level down. since such systems can often be viewed at a number of different levels. robots and automated importance in understanding the nature of mechahandling systems interconnected by an appropriate local-area network (LAN). autofocus camera is shown in again may well be mechatronic in form. autofocus camera system Drives Film advance Film rewind Shutter Focusing Zoom Flash interface Aperture Flash setting Shutter speed Aperture Zoom Mechanical coupling tow1 processor Flash settcng Sensors Film speed Film counter Focus Exposure Zoom Lens attachment Flash attachment Body closure Expopsure data L Local processor Focusing drive Aperture control Lens interface Lens type Focus Aperture Zoom Mechanical coupling User interface Program select Aperture Shutter speed Overrides within the context of their individual worlds is of trolled (CNC) machine tools.Fig. as may communication system. nodes is a particular subsystem. which An automatic. LEVEL1.

it can also afford the opportunity to enhance the behaviour and performance of an emsting product h e whde respondmg to the introduction of a new product range by a competltor. Though mechatromcs ofien supports and enables the development of new products and markets. as was the case with the Minolta The result was that its market share recovered to around 30% over a period of 3 years7*. where vehicle togy systems have become increasinglymore mechatronic in nature with features such as engine management systems. thus allowng sipficant gaps for penetration by competltors. 6 Product development strategies: ( a ) patterns of innovation in product development. arbags and anti-lock brahng now common place9-” Indeed. Consider for instance the development by Canon of the EOS620 autofocus single-lens reflex camera following the introductlon by Minolta of their Alpha 7000 autofocus camera The introductlon of the Alpha 7000 had reduced Canon’s market share to around 20% By adopting from the outset a mechatronic approach to the design ofthe EOS620. with ‘drive-by-wire’ steering. behaviour of the camera. lane traclng and navigatlon control becormng increasingly avadable. which would not otherwise have been possible. reference to Fig 7 suggests that future vehicles wdl see further mechatromc developments. often involving distributed and devolved intekgence. colhion-avoidance systems. The effect of mechatromcs as a driver of the product development process in order to satisfy an increasingly demandmg and sophsticated market is perhaps most s r n l seen in the automotive industry. The why o mechatronics f Successful operation in a hghly competitive market demands that companies have the abhty: 0 to operate with reduced product development timescales in order to capture market share 0 to respond rapidly to changes in competitors’ products to increase the competitiveness of their products by taking advantage of developments in technology 0 to provide increasing levels of performance and reliability at little or no real increase in price to the customer e to plan for and to develop new market opportunities. traction control. From the foregoing. Operation at the system level is generally transparent to the user. ( b ) product range Japan Europe time. first as options and then as standard features. They generally tend to deploy a multisensor environment. 67. meeting these requirements resulted in a reduction of product development times as part of a pohcy of incremental development supporting a wide product range This strategy may be contrasted with what was untd relatively recently the more usual European and American model offewer but larger step changes in product development and a lirmted product range concentrated on specific market sectors. They demonstrate increased functionahty with respect to conventional systems. They are based on the deployment of some form of real-time system architecture. Canon was able to place the drive for the autofocusing system in the lens rather than in the body. The motlvation of a move by a company towards the APRIL 1997 ENGINEERING SCIENCE AND EDUCATION JOURNAL 84 .Fig. as suggested by Fig. Functionahty is transferred from the mechanical to the electronic and software domains. years a competition competition Europe . They are generally based on a multiprogram structure involving user selection. mechatronic systems may in general be seen to be characterised by the following major features‘? 0 price and performance range b ) Japan 0 0 0 0 0 0 They are generally complex systems which e h b i t high levels of integration. such as the compact &sc player. In Japan. which has now assumed responsibility for its own operation.

7 The mechatronic car envirhmental control collision avoidance 4-wheel steering active Suspension ENGINEERING SCIENCE AND EDUCATION JOURNAL APRIL 1997 85 .adoption of the mechatronics concept must therefore be that of providmg the company with a strategic and commercial advantage. This means that a degree of selectivity is required in constructing a mechatronics course at whatever level'*. degree or dlploma level. either by supporting the creation of new and novel products. the most challenging aspect of any mechatronics course is that of demonstrating integration and transfer of complexity and of allowing students to experiment with different approaches to the solution of problems. been used successfully. In particular the company must be able to provide satisfactory answers to the following questions: Are the principles and features associated with a mechatronic approach to product design and development valid for the range of products and markets under consideration? Are such principles and features of themselves a significant means of gaining a competitive advantage? If the answer to these questions is yes. While such speciahst courses may well form a bignificant proportion of a mechatronics course. The time avadable for courses. is however constrained and it is therefore neither possible nor practicable to compress existing degree or dploma courses in electronics. It is also important that. material. whether at postgraduate. mechatronics courses provide the necessary insight into the integrating aspects of mechatronics. In each case. In the case of postgraduate courses. undergraduate and other mechatronic courses. groups of 15 to 20 students &om the mechatronics course have worked on a range of industry-based proje~ts'~. by gaining access to new and developing markets or by some combination of these factors. by enhancing the performance or manufacture of an existing product. over several years. more specifically mechatronic. Thus in Europe there is a tendency to place the emphasis within the course on the design aspects of mechatronics. they must be placed in context and integrated with other. then it is likely that the company will benefit from the adoption of a product development strategy based on mechatronic concepts and principles. Much larger groups have. however. mechanical engineering. Given the wide range of student backgrounds on such courses there is therefore a need for a flexible structure which enables the students to gain experience in new areas of engineering and related technologies while providmg the integration required. Thus a typical mechatronics course may supplement speciahst courses in areas such as software engineering or drive technologies with courses on design methods and systems engineeringI3. the need is generally to produce a broadening of the students' experience into other areas of engineering and design rather than a deepening of their knowledge in a relatively narrow field. in addition to their technical and technological base. These courses are generally characterised both by their academic level and content and by the economic environment and culture withm which they exist. whereas in parts of South-East Asia the concentration is perhaps more on the mechatronic aspects of manufacturing technology. the aim is to produce engineers and technicians who are capable of adopting a mechatronic outlook and who can then fit into and support the needs and requirements of the local engineering culture. In many. Mechatvonics and education Over the past few years there has been a significant growth internationallyin the provision of postgraduate. however. of mechatronics courses at whatever level. particularly at KTH in Stockholm. where. this is achieved through some form of group project work involving students typically worlung in groups of 4 to 6. computer systems and information technology into a single course in the available time-scales. As has already been hinted. indeed probably in the majority. It is not therefore simply sufficient to select a combination of courses from existing courses offered by specialist departments and call the resulting combination a mechatronics course. Fig.

meant that they developed their own particular ways of thinking about. a more realistic ‘feel’ can be given to the project. the development of a manufacturing facility for small-to-medium-scale electronics production and the design of a guided bus system for city use. with significant communication problems. to the benefit of all participants. by involving industry in the project and by requiring the group to manage its own budget. data processing and logic. the resulting effects are nevertheless very real. projects can be particularly effective in the early part of a course in introducing students to the basic concepts of mechatronics. to develop cost models for production. as suggested by Fig. information transfer and communications. As the course progresses. which indeed to some degree they are as each individual or group tends to concentrate on analysing the problem in relation to their own area of specialism and expertise. Though the picture of the relationship between the major as mechatronics technologies presented above is grossly oversimplified. 8 Relationships between the mechatronics technologies Mechanical engineering Spatial relationships Motion in three dimensions Forces Structure Signal processing Information transfer Communications Algorithms Manipulation of data Logic Physical Electronics Software Abstract By using appropriate constraints. and hence of mechatronics. Examples of typical projects include the design of a novel drive and control system for top-loadmg washmg machines for the US market. t a h n g about and defining their own perceived problem space. environment is largely concerned with three factors: 0 0 0 communication collaboration integration. and software engineering became associated with the manipulation of algorithms. In order of increasing abstraction as outlined in Fig. existing between engineers from different disciplines. This has been further compounded by the way in which each of the major mechatronics disciplines tended to think about themselves. 8. to adopt formal project planning procedures and so forth.Fig. A major role of the mechatronics engineer is often therefore to act to APRIL 1997 ENGINEERING SCIENCE AND EDUCATION JOURNAL 86 . constraints can be progressively removed and more complex problems introduced. The how of mechatronics The achevement of a successful mechatronic design Fig. Further. Indeed. 9 The communication gap Communication The essentially separate development of the major engineering disciplines prior to the advent of the microprocessor. the same problem can be interpreted by engineers from different backgrounds in such distinctly different ways that to an outsider it would seem that they are each considering dfferent problems. 9. mechanical engineering focused on spatial relationships and the associated forces and motions in threedimensional space while electronics became involved with signal processing. including the tutors.

combines lateral co-ordmation with a more convencollaboration and integration implies that mechatronics tional vertical command structure to avoid duplication must be closely linked to concurrent engineering in the of resources. in order that each understands their particular responsibilities and role within the overall product design and development process. These truly mechatronic in Table 1: Product development costs (after Reference 19) indwiduals still. during the product design phase. ft Mechatronics and concurifeentengineering Matrix organisation: The matrix organisation of Fig. 11. A quality and serviceability 5-8 60-80 matrix organisation is equally with the per. with trade-offs regarding manufacturability. the management and organisation of the design process. Though these areas may be relatively small in terms of overall project cost. which and the adoption of a completely open and frank requires less organisational effort.Testing of effort on large and cal aspects of mechatronics Process plannihg 10-1 5 90-95 complex projects as well as design. decisions made during the design process often have a high leverage. hence to be effective the Organisational strategies for mechatronics design adoption of a mechatronic approach to product design include: and development requires the collaboration of all Project-centred ouganisation: This creates a relatively selfmembers of an integrated product development team contained group by the secondment of individuals towards that common goal. Conceptual design 3-5 40-60 more widely available. project team is made up of indwiduals from the Indeed. bridge such communication gaps that may exist between the specialist members of the design team. 10 The ‘over the wall’ approach to maintaining. individual project while informal co-ordmation. serves to achieve and product development culture within the companyI6. 10 to technology transfer. An organisation of this between design and production. 12 The achievement of the goals of communication. testability and serviceabilitybeing made in real time. This means the removal of from speciahst functional groupings on a temporary internal competition and of the traditional barriers basis. engineering design and Like mechatronics.During pilot production 1000 a mechatronic approach to ness1’J8. improving its competitive position in the market-place.Table 2: The cost of design changes (after Reference 19) turing. support interaction. and the right Collaboration and integration decisions made at the right time therefore have a The primary objective of significant impact on overall any company is that of Fig. Within the matrix organisation. changes to the manufac. it could be said that although concurrent individual specialist groups under the control of a engineering can be applied to areas of engineering project leader or manager responsible for co-ordinating other than mechatronics. as illustrated technology transfer by Tables 1 and 219. testability. conENGINEERING SCIENCE AND EDUCATION JOURNAL APRIL 1997 87 . eliminating the ‘over form supports a greater focus on and attention to the the wall approach’ of Fig.current engineering aims to integrate expertise from all disciplines. as suggested by Fig. engineering and weighting allowing their experience factors such as design for and knowledge to be made manufacture. test and support Time change is made Relative cost Conclusions procedures required to 1 accommodate a new or During design 10 Many current products and novel design as well as help During testing systems depend for their to identify features that During process planning 100 success on the adoption of will increase competitive. approach without adopting retain membership of their the precepts of concurrent specialist groupings.Design embodiment 80-90 8-1 0 suited to the co-ordination formance and technologi. developing and life-cycle costs. and hence to ensure that an effective environment for the exchange and development of ideas is created”. it is not perhaps possible to be the project. The effect is to Production 15-1 00 95-1 00 to projects requiring bring forward and different people for each highlight factors such as phase of the project. however. both technical and non-technical.

* References 1 COMERFORD. Dean Street.46-49 2 REITDIJK. R. Motors and Control Conf..... D. C. D. it is essentd that the design process should ensure that it is aimed at ‘doing the right thing’. DIETZ. 1996. 1989.: ‘Product design and developmentwhy mechatronics?’.8-13 6 BRADLEY. D. L. 1992) 18 HARTLEY. UK. To be truly mechatronic it is not however enough simply to consider the technical and technological aspects of the design but it organisation is also necessary to adopt an integrated approach to product development such as that represented by concurrent or simultaneous engineering. Qual. 1996) 14 Personal communication 15 BELBIN.pp. Summer 1993 5 KAJITANI. Gwynedd LL57 lUT. Eng.. J. H. BRADLEY.product development. E. J Robot.: ‘Ten propositions on mechatronics’. on Intelligent Systems Engineering. IEEE Spectrum. 2nd Intl. 1992. Fig. pp. pp. B. pp. D.. because then it is possible to ‘do things right’. 1990. D. A. (30). E. September 1996.: ‘Integrated smart sensors’. it is in achieving these goals that mechatronics ... pp. (4). E: ‘Mechatronics and intehgent systems’. 1992) 19 WOODRUFF.: ‘Mechatronics engineering’ (McGraw-Hill.: ‘A concept of mechatronics’.2-1 to 2-5 4 MILLBANK. S. M.: ‘A smarter way to manufacture’. and MARGRAVE.395-400 Pro ect-centred LOADER. M. Guimares.6469 20 EUREKA: ‘Design for manufacture: guide for improving the manufacturability of industrial products’ (Institute for Product Development.9-10 3 BRADLEY. L. raising quality and lowering costs’ (Productivity Press. 1. HEINTZ.: ‘Built-in self-test intelligent microsystems as a contributor to system quality and performance’. pp. N. and specialist groupings.: ‘Mecha. Bangor. October 1991.what?’. 1994) 0IEE: 1997 Professor David Bradley is with the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Systems. BURD. 11 Product-centred organisation ENGINEERING SCIENCE AND EDUCATION JOURNAL APRIL 1997 88 .: ‘Mecha-what’. 1. J. T.: ‘Concurrent engineering: the product development environment for the 1990s’ (Addison-Wesley.. Hamburg-Harburg... 8. DAWSON. D. R .. UK. A. Drives. and HEIN..35-45 11 OLBRICH.. Matrix organisation skdls to enable them to function in a mechatronic environment and it is 7 BUUR. and GERLACH. SEWARD. J. Technical University of Denmark. E.167-174 10 ZABLER. and HORNE. D. S. NEC. M. 1992. A. D.333-338 13 TOMKINSON. A. J.. In particular. mechatronics courses provide a means by w h c h industry can be provided with indwiduals with the Fig. M. University of Wales. has its part to play‘”. w1. BRADSHAW. and BAKER. August 1994. A. G. and RICHARDSON.: ‘Integrated product development’ (IFS Publications. UK Mechatronics Fontm Newsletter. (l).: ‘Concurrent engineering: shortening lead times.: ‘Management teams: why they succeed or fail’ (Heinemann.: ‘Mechatronic sensors in integrated vehicle architecture’. Sem. J. Business Week.pp. Actuators A. September 1994. courses often find themselves moving rapidly into 1989) positions of responsibility as the link between more 8 BRADLEY.: ‘Mechatronics: electronics in products and processes’ (Chapman 81 Hall. J. pp. Technical University of Denmark. Mechatronics ’96/M2VIP.pp.: ‘Mechatronics design in Japan: a study of Japanese design methods and working practices’ (Institute therefore no surprise to see that graduates &om such for Engineering Design.601-613 12 WILLGOSS. D. Sens. Actuators A. . In education. (31). 1. pp. 1981) 16 ANDREASEN. R. A. and PHILLIPS. (l).. He is an IEE Member. M.. 30th April 1990. R. 1991) 9 HUIJSING. D. Mechatronics. R.: ‘The teaching of mechatronic engineering: the use of matrix methods’. 1985) 17 CARTER. A. Conf. . Eng. A. Mechatronic Syst.

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