1. What is Mechatronics?
Often the area of mechatronics is immediately defined by the systems and applications it produces rather that it being considered a methodology for design.
This paradigm is like trying to define electrical engineering by the different types of analog circuits you learn to create, despite there being a vast landscape of topics that can be explored.
Applications that consist of electrical, mechanical, control and computer systems are everywhere. The automobile is a great example. Cars began as a purely mechanical system. However the product has been consistently revisited as new technology was discovered. From things like headlights and spark plugs, to on board navigation and engine control units, the modern car is now filled with sensors and microcontrollers performing a wide range of complex tasks.
At its core, mechatronics is a design methodology that was realized to optimize the creation of complex products like the car for time and cost.
2. Sequential vs Concurrent Design
In the past, each different sub-systems of a car would be designed and developed by a separate domain expert.
The body of the vehicle would be designed and created by a mechanical engineer. Once finished, it would be given to the electrical engineer to be retrofitted with sensors and conditioning circuitry for everything from engine control to temperature monitoring in the cabin.
At this time the computer engineer would decide on the different microcontrollers to use for data acquisition and communication. Controls engineers would then program control algorithms that would be used in places like cruise control and transmission systems.
This sequential process leads to massive delays, since the development process is being done and passed between multiple teams (perhaps in multiple buildings, cities or countries). This would drive unnecessary costs due to a wide array of trade offs that include things like power management and speed.
The methodology to have development occur sequentially had a definite problem and because of that, a new approach was considered. This new approach is where all of the experts have a hand in the entire design and development process.
3. Translating the Mechatronics Methodology to Academia
The mechatronics methodology focuses on three main parts. It is these parts that are important for a student to grasp in order to be successful in the mechatronics workplace.
The three parts of the mechatronics design process are Modeling and Simulation, Prototyping, and Deployment, let’s first take a look at modeling and simulation.
Figure 1: Three parts of a mechatronics design process
Let’s explore these in the classroom and how to best optimize each individual part with the NI Solution.
For an experience that focuses on the mechatronics process students should be given a set of resources and constraints. This is similar to what they will experience in research and industrial positions and by having such requirements they can begin to approach open-ended design projects with clear set of objectives and constraints then the work of defining a full solution can begin.
Figure 2: University lab providing students the tools for mechatronics design
4. Methodology Stage 1: Modeling and Simulation
You cannot design a controller algorithm without understanding the plant or physical apparatus that is being manipulated. You must know what is going to happen to the plant as a result of giving some form of input. This could be anything from a change in force applied to a change in temperature.
Understanding the response allows you to form a model or transfer function to describe your system. In the mechatronics design process everything involved in the system must be characterized (including the actuators, sensors and the physical body).
With the LabVIEW platform and the Control Design and Simulation Toolkit students can fully model and analyze dynamic systems either through their theoretical equations or through “black box” experimentation. After modeling the entire system, students can then run simulations to test and optimize their design before starting the process of slowly integrating hardware.
Figure 3: LabVIEW Control Design and Simulation Toolkit
5. Methodology Stage 2: Prototyping
Once students have modeled and simulated their design the process of bringing in real hardware and assessing its performance beings. A best practice at this point is not to immediately build a complete physical prototype. Instead, modular portions of the model should be replaced with hardware equivalents while still simulating other (perhaps more complex or expensive parts).
This evaluation of a hybrid system (real and simulated) is known as Hardware in the Loop Testing (HIL). HIL provides a critical check throughout prototyping.
Traditionally at this point students may encounter the longest phase of development as they test, evaluate and iterate upon their overall design. There are critical tasks at this point that can lengthen this process particularly in connecting to devices such as an oscilloscope to take a measurement.
6. The NI ELVIS RIO Control Module
One of the benefits of using NI hardware and software together is the ease of integration and flexibility students have during the prototyping stage to design, instrument and analyze the entire system whether physical or simulated, inside of a singular programming language.
The NI ELVIS RIO Control module was developed to connect to the NI ELVIS instrumentation station. With the combination of embedded processing and FPGA technology students are able to quickly transition into the prototyping phase and start testing hardware sensors and actuators with their simulation. They can use the determinism of the real time processor to set up control loops and the FPGA to create low latency custom hardware processing for incoming signals.
Figure 4: NI ELVIS and the NI ELVIS RIO Control Module
At the same time students will be able to troubleshoot abnormalities or confirm signal conditions in the hardware path using readily available instrumentation from NI ELVIS.
The RIO Control Module includes:
- Xylinx Zync A9 and Dual core processors
- 8 Analog Inputs
- 4 Analog outputs
- 32 Digital I/O lines
- MXP Connector to connect to a large ecosystem of devices
- Full integration with the NI ELVIS platform
During the prototyping phase, students have access to both the embedded processor of the RIO Control Module and the high-end instrumentation of the NI ELVIS station. This will allow them to understand what is necessary in circuitry to either read from any sensor or control any actuator.
7. Methodology Stage 3: Deployment
Once simulation and prototyping are completed students will have a working solution at the lab station built upon a platform like NI ELVIS and the NI ELVIS RIO Control Module.
The next step is to make a final version of what was designed in the lab. This is easily done since all of the development and exploration of the lab resulted in the creation of code that can be reused on the embedded student device NI myRIO or industrial versions such as cRIO. This continuum of going from the educational to industrial platforms using the same architecture and code is a critical step in the process as it reduces time of implementation as well as errors in translating vision to the next stage. Learn more about these this final stage at http://www.ni.com/white-paper/53255/en/.
Figure 5: Continuum of mechatronics projects from capstone, to research to prototype using the RIO architecture
The mechatronics design methodology provides a clear framework for development. The problems students will be facing in industry or research are not going to be easy, nor should they be, but understanding the steps to create effective solutions lays a strong foundation for designing real solutions to these problems. And with the proper tools, students will be able to gain visibility and understanding into each one of those steps in order to decrease the time from idea to implementation.
With the release of the NI ELVIS RIO Control Module, and the surrounding ecosystem you have a valuable new platform to address both the pedagogical challenge of translating such topics to students, as well as creating a path to implementation.
9. Next Steps
To learn more about NI ELVIS RIO Control Module, please review the following resources:
- Learn more about the ecosystem of NI ELVIS RIO Control Module accessories that allow you to teach various topics
- Understand how NI ELVIS RIO Control Module is a part of a continuum of learning from the lab to research
- Review how to get started with your first project with NI ELVIS RIO Control Module
- See NI ELVIS RIO Control Module pricing