Is Mechatronics Simulation Ready for Machine Builders?

April 10, 2008
A new study, “System Design: New Product Development for Mechatronics,” implies it’s make-or-break time to get on board with design simulation tools.

Sugato Deb
Director Emerging Markets & Partnerships
National Instruments
Austin, Tex.

(See “How the best do it,” Mar. 6, 2008, Machine Design.) The report says that best-in-class companies are much more likely to use simulation tools for product development than average ones and laggards.

If your company is not using simulation software, does that mean it’s destined to be a perennial also-ran? Not necessarily. We generally agree with the report, but the findings are more accurate for large organizations in the automotive and aerospace industries. These companies produce large volumes (often in the millions) of custom embedded products and it is worth their effort to heavily invest in simulation technologies to reduce product defects and speed time to market. They are willing to spend the extra dollars on simulation technologies, hire simulation specialists, calibrate virtual results against physical test data, adapt their product development process, and so on.

For small and midsize machine builders, simulation technologies have not yet been as widely adopted — acceptance is more in pockets. These companies have much smaller engineering teams and find it more difficult to devote financial resources and personnel for simulation unless the payback is immediate and obvious.

That said, machine builders have much to gain from system-level mechatronics simulation. But these users are more likely to prefer simulation capabilities that are easy for their engineers to learn and integrate into their current development process, rather than more-powerful but difficult-to-use stand-alone simulation software.

Mechatronics-system simulation is challenged by the need to have tight integration between different functional simulations such as mechanical, motion, control, electrical, and embedded simulations. While individually each of these simulation areas is quite mature and powerful, the ability to integrate and co simulate across them is sorely lacking. Machines are a complex combination of these functions, so for mechatronics simulation to be useful to machine builders, system-level integrated simulation is required that is also easy to use.

New graphical system design platforms best meet the needs of machine builders. High-level, graphical software makes it easy for users to quickly become proficient, compared with hard-to-use text languages. It provides out of the box capabilities in motion and logic control, advanced controls algorithms, and an easy implementation path to COTS hardware. Further, it integrates well with mechanical and electrical design software and can simulate the entire mechatronics product or machine at a systems level.

This facilitates virtual prototyping, reduces dependence on physical prototyping for debugging and optimization, and moves more of the risk upstream in the design process. Used the right way, graphical system simulation can help companies build better mechatronics products in less time and at lower cost than traditional approaches.

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