Mechatronics Key to Better Machine Performance

Nov. 20, 2008
Key Mechatronic Terms and Definitions

There’s little argument that machine builders face a very competitive environment, in which manufacturers are demanding ever-increasing levels of productivity, flexibility and, these days, sustainability and energy efficiency.

To accomplish these sometimes seemingly disparate objectives, some leading machine builders—together with their customers and automation suppliers—are turning to mechatronics, the holistic consideration of all aspects of machine performance, starting with the first day of the machine design process.

Today’s Global Machine Builders Forum at Rockwell Automation’s Automation Fair 2008 event in Nashville, Tenn., provided an overview of the key mechatronic terms and definitions, as well as evidence of its successful deployment by a machine builder.

To open the session, Christopher Zei, vice president and general manager of Rockwell Automation’s OEM business, presented a few data points about the OEM marketplace, noting that “the predominance of European builders’ share in this $51 billion OEM automation market has declined to about 50%, compared with 63% two years ago, a clear reflection of the growing influence of Asia-Pacific builders on the market.” North America stands at about 15% share, according to Zei’s data.

“We knew we had a different set of components that would provide faster performance and drastically reduce cycle time.” Eagle Technologies’ Michael Koziel explained how the machine builder used simultaneous design principles to dramatically increase the performance of its customers’ machines.

Zei touched on the key OEM drivers as Rockwell Automation sees them, “many of which—faster integration, more simplicity, flexibility, cost containment, global support, to name a few—also are key drivers for their customers.”

Zei handed off to Dr. Kevin Craig, professor of mechanical engineering, Marquette University, who detailed his work to help engineers understand that, in order to deal with those key drivers and “help design performance, efficiency and sustainability into machines and processes, we need a mechatronic approach.”

“We need to be world leaders here,” exhorted Craig. “We can’t take direction from government. We need to lead in this effort.”

Mechatronics, as Craig explained it, fundamentally means the integration and simultaneous optimization of all system components from the very beginning of the design process.

“Modeling is the key to the process,” said Craig. “It relates the hardware to the performance need.”

The process, added Craig, helps define problem-solving success based on the areas where technology, business and human values overlap to define a domain where the technology is feasible, the business is viable and the values include desirability and usability.

How all this influences machine builder Eagle Technologies of Bridgman, Mich., was the subject of remarks by two members of the company’s management staff.

Recently awarded Rockwell Automation Machine Builder status, Eagle Technologies builds in the material handling, robotic assembly and test systems, and custom software space, having expanded into these markets since its 1953 inception as a tool and die company.

The company thinks of mechatronics in terms of its simultaneous engineering approach of close design work with some of its customers.

Michael Koziel, Eagle Technologies vice president, explained how this design collaboration paid off for the company. “We won a big contract for 11 test machines, each costing $900,000,” reported Koziel. “The customer had very rigid mechanical and controls specifications in that contract. We knew we had a different set of components that would provide faster performance and drastically reduce cycle time. By doing some critical, upfront alternative design, we demonstrated that the customer could achieve its production needs with nine machines instead of 11.”

Asked who pays for such upfront, unspecified alternative design engineering, considering that the customer had no way of knowing where it might lead, Koziel acknowledged that “it’s a tough sell,” and he offered another example of the success of this approach.

Eagle bid on a job for a customer that specified GE controllers, no exceptions, that’s all he used, Koziel said. “The customer told us, ‘Don’t even bother turning in a proposal to us if you don’t quote GE controls,’” related Koziel. “So we had to do that, but we also offered an alternative plan that was less-expensive, reduced the customer’s total cost of ownership and simply would make the machine run better in the end.”

Koziel added that before the job was awarded they went to the customer and really pitched the alternative. The result was beyond any reasonable expectation. “Not only did they go with our Rockwell Automation-based controls proposal across the machine, they actually decided to change over their entire facility to Rockwell Automation,” he said.

One of the key elements in this success story was the service that Rockwell Automation’s broad reach could offer, Koziel said. “The Rockwell Automation network was so vast and thorough that the customer saw the value was greater than that from the current supplier.”