The market scenario is presently characterized by customer expectations being at an all-time high, intense competition and rising cost pressures. As such, companies are on their toes to come up with products that excel in terms of their durability and performance. This requirement has enhanced the need for known, but revived field of engineering, called mechatronics, or systems engineering. In this blog post, Devendra Parulekar, Partner, IT Risk and Assurance (Technology, Communications and Entertainment Group), EY, emphasizes upon the need for an integration of mechanical, electronic and computation to enhance the performance of your business.
Smart becomes smarter when mechanical, electronic, computer, and software engineering integrate to design and manufacture products and processes. Mechatronics combines these different disciplines to create a smart product, which is better than the sum of its parts.
Why does your company need Mechatronics?
As companies expand, their respective engineering disciplines find it increasingly tough to coordinate and work in perfect tandem. For instance, in the case of any malfunctioning or technical issue, the electrical engineer, the mechanical engineer and the software specialist at the company keep passing on the blame and shifting accountability.
The answer to this problem is the cross-disciplinary approach of mechatronics, which integrates the work of these engineers and facilitates technological innovation. The success of this approach is already evidenced in the development of products such as camcorders and compact disc players. The use of mechatronics maximizes throughput, reduces lead time, eliminates set up time, enables addition of features and enhances productivity.
Leveraging on its increasing relevance, mechatronic engineering finds application across a number of industries such as aerospace, automotive, chemical processing, health care, manufacturing and mining. A number of automotive companies in India are using such integrated manufacturing techniques to enhance production. For instance, a German automobile MNC plant near Pune extensively uses robots and conveyor belts to increase the effectiveness of routine tasks such as the testing of car frames and component dimensions.
The Indian Government is inviting private participation for developing smart cities using advanced technologies such as mechatronics. It targets creating 100 smart cities, as a part of the Budget 2014. A good case in point is Barcelona,’s experience where a leading MNC’s smart waste management solutions helped reduce the operational cost for garbage collection by 35%.
However, systems integration comes with its own unique set of challenges. Companies planning to adopt this practise need to make a high upfront investment and ensure significant power availability. In addition, the methods may not always be economically justifiable for small-scale production. Companies will be required to adopt some best practices to extract the maximum value from their mechatronics investment. Some of these have been discussed below.
Companies are required to “model” mechatronics as a robust process, rather than considering it just a form of any other engineering. This will require the use of uniform terminology; graphical representation of product structures and architecture; standardized product documentations; identification of interdependencies among functions; effective collaboration; and pre-emption of resolutions to design issues. To make all of this possible, management will need to connect the ultimate project manager to the assembly through line design connecting mechanical, process technology, hardware, software and usability systems.
Companies are recommended to use model-based system engineering (MBSE), which is a digital model for system engineering. It is based on software tools and modeling languages such as METUS and SysML. The model defines correlations among system requirements, functions and structure. It thus facilitates the sharing of all cross-disciplinary information among various engineering disciplines in a convenient manner. A leading machinery and equipment building company recently shifted to this model from its traditional sequential approach (, i.e., mechanical followed by electronic and software processes). The model helped the company reduce its total project cost by 15%–20% and increase profitability by 30%–40%. It also enabled the company to reduce its reworking and service efforts by up to 40% and bring its new employees to speed 50% faster.
Creating integrated teams and managing knowledge
The implementation of mechatronics solutions requires strong integration among the mechanical, electronic and software engineering teams that are working toward a common goal. This requires better coordination between specific-discipline teams through effective communication and clear ownership. More often than not, they bring with them natural silos of knowledge that they must overcome, in order to work together. In addition, it is a good practise for companies to have in place a clear dispute settlement mechanism to help them reach a middle ground.
Setting up boundaries and managing customer expectations
It is very important to define mechatronic system boundaries and establish clarity on the desired end objective. For instance, the scope for designing and producing smartphones will be considerably different from that for creating an infotainment system in an automobile. While setting the scope, companies also need to incorporate market intelligence and any previous feedback from customers. Once the scope is set and the boundaries are defined, all of the involved teams should ideally set regular touch points to develop a common understanding and foster collaboration at all stages. One key factor for guaranteeing the success of mechatronics solutions is having system engineers understand what the customer wants and how his or her requirement fits into the overall product design. Teams are required to be trained to understand how changes in the final product affect customer usage. This helps engineers take informed decisions about the system architecture. It would also enable accurate adherence to design requirements, which is otherwise a challenge for mechatronics.
One major limitation of systems engineering is the excessive debug iterations required for its verification. These debug cycles extend development times and push out schedules, having huge cost and time implications. This is because end user requirements cannot be completely known and frozen early on in the process and they evolve over time. As a result, the product often fails to meets customer expectations. Companies are, therefore, advised to have numerous checks in place with end users to ensure that that product is being developed as per their expectations.
Rising customer expectation, increasing competition and escalating cost pressures are compelling companies to look for better ways of creating more appealing “intelligent” products. This has brought to fore the field of mechatronics, which refers to the integration of mechanical components, electronics and embedded software. If used correctly, mechatronics offers tremendous opportunities in terms of cost reduction, greater efficiency and profitability. Though, to derive the maximum value, companies need to be aware of the associated costs and challenges. They are recommended to follow the “customer is the king” mantra to minimize iterations and save on costs. In times to come, these pressures are expected to intensify. And thus, the need for integrated systems engineering will only increase. Companies should be able to pre-empt this change and build their mechatronics capabilities accordingly to be able to navigate through such a dynamic environment.