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Modern mechatronics is more compactly integrated than ever before and found in unusual places.
John Blyler | Apr 26, 2021
Several decades ago, mechatronics was all about the integration of multiple engineering disciplines, especially in the mechanical and electrical engineering domains. Rather than working in separate silos, these disciplines would try to work together to improve the design, integration, testing, manufacturing, and maintenance of the finished system or product.
Today, thanks in considerable measure to the popularity of IoT technologies, these traditional engineering domains have synchronized, making the design process more precise and efficient. Concurrent engineering is more likely to occur early in product development, providing benefits throughout the entire engineering product life cycle.
Mechatronics has become the synchronized combination of mechanical engineering, electronic control, and systems thinking in the design phase of products and manufacturing processes. This closer alignment has benefited all types of mechatronic machines, especially when enhanced mechanical components are combined with advances in smart motor technologies, e.g., brush and brushless (BL) dc motors, gearheads, sensors, and controllers. When done right, the result is a high-performance compact design.
Did you know that elevators and escalators safely move more people than any other form of transportation? The National Elevator Industry estimates that people in the US travel 2.55 billion miles on elevators and escalators each year. That amount of travel is more than the total rail, air miles traveled combined, or 1/2 of all highway trips per year.
Aside from safely moving between floors, one critical feature of all elevators is the opening and closing of the doors. The door mechanism relies on tiny motors that tirelessly perform their function several times as each elevator travels from one floor to another.
Those motors offer a good look at the evolution of modern mechatronics. A motor installed in the elevator cab is responsible for opening and closing the door of the cabin and the door to the respective floor. The demands on this motor are high: It has to be small yet powerful, energy-saving, reliable, and, most importantly, open and close at precise distances.
Meeting these design requirements isn't easy. It requires an intelligent controller, one that typically consists of a combination of brushless DC motors and a specially designed electronic encoder.
Encoders are sensing devices that convert a motion into an electrical signal that some type of control device can read in a motion control system. The encoder returns a feedback signal that can be used to determine position, count, speed, or direction. A control device can use this information to send a command for a particular function, such as the opening and closing of elevator doors. Typically, such doors are operated by a mechanism (e.g., belts or arms) driven by a small AC or DC motor, typically mounted on top of the elevator cab. The encoder monitors the motors to ensure that the doors fully open and close as required.
One of the challenges is the number of different elevators with differently sized cabs, different materials, and even different safety standards depending on the country of operation. After a calibration procedure, a door drive controller detects the size and weight of the doors and automatically calculates the optimal parameters and corrects them if necessary. This greatly simplifies the elevator technician's work. In just a few steps, the Door Drive configuration is complete, and the drive is ready for use.
The integrated controller system not only controls the opening and closing of the doors but may also collect data about potential maintenance issues. In this way, it efficiently acts as an IoT device. (Image Source: Maxon)
The integration of previously separate devices for controlling the doors on an elevator is an example of modern mechatronics development. By designing the mechanical and electronic portions together, companies like Maxon have created a tightly integrated and small footprint package in which the mechanical and electronics work together to increase performance while lowing cost.
Mechatronic encoders are found in all sorts of applications and are often integrated with Arduino-based maker style projects.
John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.
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