What is Mechatronics
indent][indent][left]Perhaps the simplest definition of "mechatronics" is that it is a branch of engineering that deals with combined mechanical, electronic and software systems.
The elements of mechatronics systems include sensors, actuators, microcontrollers (or microprocessors) and real-time control software.
The actuators are mainly high precision electric motors and solenoids. Any of a large number of sensor types are used according to the intended application, including light, acceleration, weight, color, temperature and image.
One of the features which distinguishes mechatronic systems or products from earlier electromechanical systems or products is the replacement of some mechanical functions with electronic and software ones. This results in much greater flexibility of both design and operation.
Another is increased speed and precision of performance. A third is the ability to conduct automated data collection and reporting. In addition, advanced mechatronics systems now have the ability to implement distributed control in complex systems.
Mechatronics systems are used in a large and growing range of applications. Examples include robots, industrial production machinery, cameras and computer disk drives.
Japan has played an important role in the establishment and development of the field of mechatronics. For example, the term "mechatronics" was first coined in Japan. It was initially used in the late 1960s at Yaskawa Electric Company Ltd in reference to the application of electronic control of the company's electric motors.
This term remains popular in Japan, where it usually refers to a fusion of mechanical parts and a broadly defined electronics (i.e., including semiconductor control devices, sensors and optoelectronic devices).
Japan is the world's largest producer and user of industrial robots. It is also the top manufacturer and user of many kinds of advanced mechatronics systems for industrial production applications.
Japan is also the largest volume producer of many types of mechatronic components, including high-performance motors and CCD image sensors. And it ranks at or near the top in developing and producing microcontrollers and digital signal processors for these applications.
The term "mechatronics" has also been widely used in continental Europe for many years. Although it has been slow to gain acceptance as a distinct field of study and practice in the US and UK, its growing acceptance worldwide is evidenced by the rising number of undergraduate and postgraduate university courses now being offered.
There has always been a close relationship between mechatronics and robotics, and, in fact, many engineers contend that the former grew out of the latter. A number of innovations that were first applied to robotics were subsequently applied to other types of high performance machinery. Examples include sensory feedback and the coordination of movements, both of which made robots more flexible and increased productivity.
Mechatronics technology has continued to advance rapidly since the coining of this term. These advances are concerned largely with precision, speed, durability, miniaturization, flexibility, safety, power consumption, intelligence and cost.
This is the result of the swift progress in all of the components and technologies of mechatronics systems, including actuators, sensors, microcontrollers and software as well as materials science, fuzzy logic, lasers, communications, kinematics, machine vision and virtual reality.
One simple way of viewing the development of mechatronics is to look at some of the major technologies that have been added and representative applications for each decade.
In the 1970s, mechatronics was concerned mainly with servo technology for use in such products such as automatic focus cameras, automatic door openers and vending machines.
During the 1980s it became commonplace to add microcontrollers to mechanical systems in order to further improve their performance, reduce size and cut costs. High growth applications during that decade included computer disk drives, numerically controlled machine tools, industrial robots, automobile engines and antilock braking systems.
A feature of the 1990s was the growing incorporation of communications technology, thus making possible systems which could be connected in large networks.
An important trend throughout the short history of mechatronics has been the continued miniaturization of components and systems. In fact, some systems have become so small that they can be built into a single silicon chip (inclusive of sensor, actuator and control circuitry) using advanced semiconductor production processes. An example is tiny deceleration measurement devices that can trigger air bags in automobiles.
Another major trend has been a rapid growth in the application of optoelectronic components, including sensing devices (such as CCD image sensors and LED-based object and distance sensors), activators (lasers which replace electromechanical activators for processing materials), communications systems (optical fiber and LEDs for linking subsystems) and display devices (LCD, fluorescent, plasma and other display modes).
In spite of the rapid progress that has been made and the emergence of whole new classes of products, not everyone is convinced that "mechatronics" should be considered as a distinct new field of engineering.
This is because mechatronics is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary development. It is just a natural progression to incorporate sensors, microcontrollers and other advanced electronic components into mechanical products now that they have become so inexpensive and small that they can be put into even the cheapest and tiniest of products.
Some engineers point out that the term "mechatronics," while once an appropriate updating of the term "electromechanics," has itself now become somewhat of a misnomer. This is because the field has swiftly incorporated advances from a growing number of other fields, and the share (measured in terms of function, cost, etc.) of mechanical components in individual systems continues to decrease.
Indeed, mechatronics is increasingly incorporating every aspect of engineering. Perhaps the real key to a system or a product being a mechatronics one is that it contains moving mechanical parts.
Regardless of the terminology, the future of what many people call "mechatronics" is very bright. This is because advances continue to be made in all of the components and technologies used in such systems and because no slowdown is in sight for this progress. The result will be a continued improvement in the performance of mechatronics systems and a further growth in the number of applications.
For more information about mechatronics see Mechatronics - A Directory of Resources on the Internet.
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