What in the world is Mechantronics?

At this weeks CoDeSys seminar in Lund Sweden, Ken Ryan (he’s the guy with me in this picture), Director of the Mechatronics lab at Alexandria Technical College in Alexandria Minnesota, gave a very interesting talk on the evolution of manufacturing automation. As part of that talk he introduced the concept of Mechatronics; somewhat of a new term for me. I had heard it before but never gave much thought to it.



Ken started with a description of life before computers and microprocessors. If you’re under 40 now you probably don’t remember those days. We had garage doors that didn’t rise and fall on command, rotary phones (tied to a wall someplace where everyone in the family could hear your conversations) and worst of all, TVs that had only 3 channels. And you got off your butt and walked up and physically turned the dial to check out another channel. After a while, there was such a thing as a remote. They used infrared I think to transmit signals out of the remote and when you pressed the button, a stepper motor turned the dial for you. It was clunky and made a huge gnashing sound as you flipped through the channels.


It wasn’t any better in the factories either. Automation was a set of relays tacked up on a wall. There were literally acres of relays with wires from one relay to the next relay and that was how control functions were implemented. The relays looked something like ladders and some old wise guy electrician whose name is lost to history probably started calling it ladder logic.


In those early days about 95+ percent of a machine was mechanical. There might have been some lights and some switches but that’s about all. The ME (Mechanical Engineers) guys ruled. Even when I started in the 80s I remember that the Kimberly Clark converting machines had these monstrous line shafts that were 30 or 40 yards long. Every few feet there was a gear box that transferred power from the line shaft to some other mechanical device.


It was a real challenge to the mechanical guys. To start these huge shafts you had these huge motors. But as the motor started turning the shaft resisted it. A body at rest tends to stay at rest (Newton, right?). They had all sorts of problems with waves moving through those mechanical parts as they started it and tried to change speeds. Those waves caused product quality issues as material couldn’t be held in place very easily. And as those components wore down, the quality issues got worse and worse. There was some brilliant work done by those guys to overcome thoee problems and get maximum productivity out of the mechanical systems.


Now we’ve gone the other way. The majority of what happens on a machine is electronic. It’s all software. But that has just moved the problem and in some ways made it worse. Software is hard to do right, easy to screw up. It takes a lot of time to develop and debug it. Not many people have a real good handle on a process to design, implement and test it. It’s even hard to spec out what you want to do.


The “science” of working on this problem is called Mechatronics. That’s what Ken does in his lab way up there in Alexandria [It’s so cold up there that the only day they take off their long underwear is on the fourth of July – winter starts again on July 5].


A big part of the Mechatronics effort is using CoDeSys and other IEC 61131-3 software tools to make it easier to develop automation systems, produce higher quality software and reuse a lot of it so that you’re not starting from scratch every time.


If you have a chance, check out the Center for Applied Mechatronics website at http://www.camc-online.org/.