How The Best Do It

March 6, 2008
Report details secrets of the best mechatronic design teams.

If your design team is a top performer in getting work out the door on time and on budget, you probably communicate more than teams that regularly fall behind.

This was a central finding of a new study from the Aberdeen Group, Boston, which looked at how manufacturers handle interdisciplinary projects.

The report, “System Design: New Product Development for Mechatronics,” looks at how more than 140 companies around the world create mechatronic products. They include automotive and industrial-equipment manufacturers, aerospace and defense firms, as well as producers of computer software and hardware, and consumer electronics. And researchers identify “best-in-class” performers — the top 20% in terms of meeting goals such as cost, quality, and launch targets. How they operate offers insight into getting mechatronic products out the door on time and on budget.

Across the board, surveyed companies say the key challenge is bringing together engineers from three different backgrounds, often with little understanding of the other areas. Most engineers draw on a knowledge base and design tools unique to their own field and lack cross-functional expertise. In particular, cross-discipline conflicts arise largely due to an inability to understand the impact design changes in one area will have across the others.

Complicating matters, competitive demands are forcing companies to speed product development, meaning engineers need to concurrently develop different design elements, rather than follow a serial approach.

“The best companies make a concerted effort to promote interdiscipline collaboration,” says Aberdeen Analyst Michelle Boucher. Though it seems like common sense to keep all players aware of changes that impact their portion of a design, the laggards don’t, she says. The study shows leaders are much more likely than average and below-average companies to notify others of changes with cross-discipline impact and formally document issues as they arise, making sure design conflicts receive appropriate attention.

Further, the best companies foster good communication on a day-to- day basis. “They hold regular meetings of cross-functional design teams that include representatives from every discipline,” says Boucher. Regular updates let them flag and quickly resolve potential problems and, ultimately, gives team members insight into how each portion of a design impacts the others, she adds.

High achievers are also more inclined to use software tools to promote good communication, such as PLM systems with a range of capabilities, says Boucher. For instance, workflow tools notify engineers of deadlines and regulate when jobs are handed off to others, so development advances at a regular pace. Collaboration tools such as video and Web conferencing let teams in different locations interact. And visualization tools let non- CAD users view product drawings. “Some PLM systems have all these capabilities, such as Parametric Technology’s Windchill, Dassault Systemes’ Enovia, and Siemens’ PLM Software Teamcenter,” notes Boucher.

Cross-training is another way leading companies overcome the challenges of mechatronic development. It helps break down knowledge “silos” and encourages engineers to develop both mechanical and electrical skills. Design and manufacturing engineers gain a better insight into downstream repercussions of changes, and this typically speeds product development.

While mechatronics often means smarter and better performing products, another challenge is figuring out if all the different components will actually work together as intended. The later in the design cycle engineers identify problems, the less flexibility they have in finding a solution. And if problems don’t crop up until physical prototypes are built, it’s usually difficult and expensive to revamp mechanical components. Solutions are often restricted to the controls with options, in some cases, so limited that design requirements must be compromised.

Simulating system performance early on helps address this challenge. Accurate simulations and virtual tests greatly increase first time software quality and give developers more immediate and meaningful feedback. Engineers can identify and address problems early in the design cycle, before there are too many constraints on potential fixes.

Aberdeen’s results bear this out. The leaders are 2.5 times more likely to run system-level simulations that emulate the integrated electronic and software components, and more than five times more likely than the average to use simulation tools as a way to digitally validate system level behavior.

Because controls design is critical, the best firms are twice as likely as the average to automatically generate code based on the system model’s logic and structure, which is much faster than manually writing code. To support these efforts, they use Electronic Design Automation (EDA) to design chips and leverage embedded software and control-design tools.

They also use simulation to start testing before physical prototypes are built. As such, they are nearly 50% more likely to use Hardware in the Loop (HIL) tests that validate a controller’s behavior with the actual chip. HIL is especially helpful in mechatronic product development. Simulations let the embedded software think it’s seeing real-world inputs and outputs from sensors or actuators. This tells developers if the chip works without waiting for the controller to be built.

They also take advantage of computer-aided testing to support digital validation. For instance, to improve the accuracy of future simulations, these companies are 86% more likely to use actual test data to help define simulations and determine where to place sensors, says the report.

Does a focus on simulation and identifying system-level problems early really pay off? By comparing the number of prototypes, costs, and timing, the conclusion is an obvious yes. Overall, the best companies perform more virtual iterations, create fewer physical prototypes, and perform fewer tests. This significantly controls costs and saves time.

Depending on product complexity, studies show best-in-class companies eliminate up to 40 days of development time and $90,000 in project costs. This directly contributes to top companies outperforming their peers in hitting cost targets, launch dates and, ultimately, product revenue goals.

Make contact
Aberdeen Group,
For more mechatronics information, visit, a collaborative effort between Electronic Design, Machine Design, Motion System Design, and Power Electronics.

Here’s a snapshot of how different groups take advantage of simulation tools. Best-in-class companies rank in the top 20% in terms of product-design efficiency, below-average ones in the bottom 20%.

Best-in-class companies run more virtual simulations and build an average of 2.3 fewer prototypes. Savings are based on prototypes for simple products (<1,000 parts) requiring 5.4 days to build at a cost of $2,503; 10 days/$36,558 for moderate prototypes (<10,000 parts); and 17.3 days/$40,800 for complex ones.

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