Richard Blatcher, head of marketing –?Manufacturing Industry Group, EMEA at Autodesk, takes a look into how mechatronics and digital prototyping are helping the manufacturing industry. Manufacturers today need to come to terms with a raft of complex challenges. Being able to deliver strategically differentiated products is complicated in itself, but even more so when customers are demanding greater customisation and faster speed to market at ever-lower costs.

One area in which manufacturers are finding ways to meet this challenge is product design, and many are learning that innovation in complex product design techniques can deliver significant benefits in product quality, cost, speed and customer satisfaction.

One example is at HTC Sweden, a global flooring systems company whose diamond grinding machines turn ordinary concrete floors into luminous work surfaces. The company previously built physical models of new products at a cost of up to $500,000 per prototype, with some products requiring five such models. Following the introduction of digital prototyping, product development costs have been cut by around 97%.

With this, the company created a computer-based workflow where conceptual design, engineering, manufacturing, and procurement teams are connected by a single digital model. This simulates the complete product, and gives engineers the ability to design, visualise, and simulate their products digitally.

Parker Hannifin, the US-based motion and control technologies company, uses similar digital prototyping software not only to speed product design and production and save on building physical prototypes, but also to bring its customers into the process by allowing them to collaborate in a virtual design studio at every stage of development.

The value of digital prototyping is perhaps clearest in its application to mechatronic products that combine electronics, mechanics, computing, and control engineering. Mechatronic techniques are vital to the work of such industries as consumer products, defence systems and aerospace, automotive, health care, and materials processing.

Harnessing the best practices of mechatronics can achieve significant benefits. Best-in-class manufacturers are more able to reach their targets for development costs, product revenue, and product quality, and to hit their product launch dates. Such manufacturers can typically also add more features and functions, reduce the size, weight and cost of their products and improve their overall efficiency. The use of mechatronics also enables these companies to leverage adaptive control and diagnostics to improve reliability and reduce maintenance costs, and to customise or upgrade products by reprogramming embedded firmware.

A mechatronics-based approach also mitigates risk and solves common design challenges such as the slow, serial machine design process, poor communication between machine designers and customers, and risky physical machine testing.

In the automotive sector, research suggests mechatronics helps manufacturers offer consumers fast-to-market new features, such as on-board GPS systems or blind spot detection, while improving reliability and driving down costs in manufacturing and after-market warranty service and recalls. Mechatronics is a major driver of differentiating innovation with research firm AMR finding that 30% to 40% of automotive product innovation comes from increased mechatronic content.

Mechatronic products, however, are extremely complex. For example, the growth of electronics and mechatronic features in vehicles expanded the onboard computer code required to drive them from about one million lines in the 1990s to more than 100 million today, according to GM’s former chief technology officer Tony Scott.

The point at which mechatronics product complexity meets customer needs for customisation and speed can be a sore one, or it can be a source of previously under appreciated value derived from the design process. While the actual cost of design in manufacturing is small – approximately 5% on average – the results of the design process dictate 50% or more of total manufacturing costs, according to David Ullman, professor emeritus of mechanical design at Oregon State University. This underlines just how important it is for manufacturers to pay greater attention not only to the ‘what’ of design, but also to the ‘how.’

Digital prototyping for mechatronics

Using a Digital Prototyping workflow enables mechatronics design to take place in swift parallel across all technical specialties involved.

A digitally prototyped mechatronics design keeps all specialists updated on exactly what is happening in every other specialty as the product or part moves through the design process and towards final production. For example, product-management sub-programs allow for on-the-fly updating of a bill of materials. So when a product’s aluminum surface is bent or shrunk, the amount of on-order aluminum sheet metal changes immediately.

According to analyst, the Aberdeen Group, best-in-class manufacturers that use digital prototyping outperform competing manufacturers that do not by getting products to market an average of 58 days faster.

Creating designs

The Autodesk solution for Digital Prototyping can bring particular benefits to users who are looking to create mechatronic designs. Tools such as AutoCAD Electrical and AutoCAD Mechanical work in parallel with Autodesk Inventor software to support integrated 2D and 3D mechanical and electrical design processes.

The Inventor software is the foundation for Digital Prototyping, providing a comprehensive, integrated set of design tools for producing and documenting complete digital prototypes that allow designers to simulate how a design will work under real-world conditions before being built. AutoCAD Electrical is built to create and modify electrical control systems quickly and accurately.

The Autodesk solution for Digital Prototyping gives smooth bi-directional interoperability between 2D and 3D mechanical and electrical design applications. AutoCAD Electrical software passes electrical design intent information for cables and conductors directly to the Inventor software to automatically create a 3D harness design. Users can pass wire-connectivity information to AutoCAD Electrical and automatically create the corresponding 2D schematics. This helps users create accurate mechatronics designs in less time.

Saving time

Speed to market is an important benefit for most manufacturers, but so too are savings on physical prototypes. For example, BigToys, a US-based company that manufactures Earth-friendly custom playgrounds for schools and communities, previously crafted expensive physical prototypes that, when built, sometimes cover entire city blocks.

By moving to digital prototyping, the company reduced time to market from months to weeks; cut development, labour and material costs; boosted customer satisfaction by allowing customers to collaborate on design; and nearly eliminated waste because design changes were made before steel was cut or plastic shaped. In addition, its revenue has nearly tripled and the company can ‘ship’ models to customers in real time.

A valuable solution

The value of design tools is being recognised and embraced by a new generation of engineers and designers accustomed to living in a world that integrates virtual and physical realities into a single, unified reality. This generation of ‘virtual natives,’ with its drive to combine the physical and virtual worlds into one, is transforming existing industries and promising to create new ones.

In manufacturing, virtual design tools and digital prototyping workflows tear down previous barriers, creating a team-like ecosystem in which designers, engineers, marketers and end customers collaborate continuously from concept to production. The result is a better designed product that costs less to make, gets to market faster, increases margins, frees internal resources for innovation, and – most importantly of all – pleases the customer.