Pocobor.

Mr. Hannah’s Journey

A recent email thread from bird-watchers in my hometown got me thinking about the interaction between technology, nature, and humans. An osprey, a fish-eating bird of prey, named Mr. Hannah, has traveled over 3,000 miles south from New England into the Amazon over the past few weeks, and thanks to an electronic transmitter strapped onto him, humans now have even more reason to envy birds and their worldly travels. We may be able to use calculus, and we’re smart enough to worry about the future, but I’d bet that you might trade some brain power for a pair of wings and a self-guided tour of the globe. The maps show the September and October journey of Mr. Hannah down into South America. See this website for further detail of Mr. Hannah’s journey.

body_hannah2

The specifics of bird migrations have long been an incomplete puzzle to scientists, but with data from birds such as Mr. Hannah the Osprey, the puzzle pieces are falling into place. Many technologies have converged to make this possible. GPS and satellite communication hardware have become small enough to be carried by a bird, batteries have reached a critical size, power, and weight to be highly portable, and information systems now exist to receive and manage the data as it is sent from remote transmitters.

There is no doubt that this miniaturization trend will continue to accelerate. The limits of size, power, and complexity will be pushed to satisfy our increasingly demanding expectations and will enable scientific investigation, such as that seen with Mr. Hannah, that was impossible just a few years ago. New technologies will allow huge leaps in what we know and understand about nature and our planet, and because these technological challenges lie at the heart of Pocobor’s expertise, we’re looking forward to being part of the journey.

Mechatronic Design Process

The actual design process is a little more complicated than this.

One of the things we’ve found ourselves talking about a lot lately around the office is the design process for smart or mechatronic products and what makes it unique. Because design processes in general are so open-ended, they are difficult to speak broadly about but I think that effective mechatronic design requires its own approach and is worth thinking about.

Not Really a Process

First off, I actually think that the term “design process” is a bit of a misnomer in general and particularly for smart product design. To me, the word “process” implies a set or fixed course of action almost like following a checklist or recipe to arrive at a predetermined outcome (in this case, the final design). However, because the goals and parameters surrounding any given design problem can be so varied, it is impossible to specify a universally good design process. The path followed during the creation of a good design can be different for every design and every designer.

For smart products, which cross the boundaries of traditional engineering disciplines (mechanical design, electrical engineering and software development, to name a few), this is particularly true. The increased number of design considerations resulting from the large number of facets of the design increases the number of potential design paths – both good and bad – significantly. However, it is still possible to identify some common factors in the creation of a good design. Instead of a process, though, I prefer to think of it as a mindset that facilitates good design.

What Is The Mechatronic Design Mindset?

It can be useful to think of designing a system or device as a series of trade-offs – consider the ever-present cost vs. performance tradeoff or something like the relationship between engine horsepower and gas mileage. One of the things that differentiates mechatronics from more traditional design is that the number of tradeoffs and inter-relationships is usually higher. When the designer makes a choice regarding (for instance) the mechanical design, s/he has to consider not only the ramifications for the other parts of the mechanical design but also how that choice will affect the electronics and software of the system. To design effectively, the designer must embrace a mindset that considers tradeoffs and consequences that may not usually be considered for certain subsections of the design.

Who Is Designing?

Saying this isn’t very profound – it’s basically common sense. However, following this line of thought has some practical ramifications for designers of mechatronic systems. The main conclusion is that designers of smart products should cultivate skills across traditional engineering disciplines so that they are able to understand and appropriately weigh all of the applicable factors when making decisions.

It is certainly possible for a mixed team of traditional engineers (e.g. mechanical engineer + electrical engineer + programmer) to create a well-designed mechatronic system. However, I would argue that the level of collaboration and communication required for this to occur in practice is prohibitively time-consuming and difficult for most design problems. Instead, I think the most effective practice is to involve designers who have some expertise in all of the relevant fields, which allows them to easily consider all of the facets of the system together. Although the time required to become (and remain) conversant in multiple disciplines typically precludes brilliant-guru level expertise in any one, an effective design team can be assembled for any given problem that combines multi-disciplinary mechatronics engineers with traditional engineers as needed.

Why Should You Care?

Smart products are becoming ubiquitous in our lives. From the car you drive to the temperature control system in your house to the digital camera in your pocket, systems that used to be strictly mechanical are increasingly integrating microcontrollers and becoming smarter. This new class of systems demands a new mindset and a new approach to enable the most efficient and effective creation of new designs.