Making the transition from designing mechanically-oriented products to smart, connected ones can be intimidating. And frankly, it should be. Companies making this ambitious change must gain new competencies to develop embedded software, design electronics, and plan electrical systems. All three are brand new domains that might seem pretty foreign to companies that have been focused on mechanical design for decades.
While companies do, in fact, need to gain those new capabilities, they often overlook an additional adjustment: changing the way mechanical engineers design. You see, decisions made in mechanical design have a profound impact on all those other engineering disciplines.
Delving deeper into the changes to mechanical design in the smart, connected products era is the focus of this post. Let’s get started.
The Impact of Mechanical Decisions
How, exactly, can mechanical design decisions affect the other domains involved in a smart, connected product?
Sensor and Antenna Placement and Interference:
Sensors allow a product to sense its environment and its operation. Antennas allow products to communicate with other products and, via an internet connection, with IoT platforms and more. Both have requirements and constraints in order to operate as intended. Vision sensors might need line of sight to what it is reading. Antennas need unimpeded connections. So mechanical engineers have to figure out the right placement of these electronics on the products. They also need to ensure that there is no interference for these electronics. This represents a whole new set of constraints that mechanical engineers must accommodate and validate.
Integrating Actuated Components:
These items allow products to either exert some control over their environment or operation. It might be hydraulics, pneumatics, heating elements, or any other number of things. Integrating these items into mechanical design is likely the easiest task, as they have a mechanical aspect of them that are familiar to mechanical engineers. One difference here is the electrical actuation aspect.
Embedded Systems Placement and Protection:
Embedded systems, composed of embedded software, circuit boards, and their processors, act as the brains of smart, connected products. They receive signals from sensors, process data, send commands to actuated components, and communicate via antennas. Such embedded systems are often hidden away inside the products, but must also be accessible for service. They also can be very sensitive to environmental effects, so additional considerations must be taken into account on how to protect them. Finally, managing the thermal conditions for embedded systems has always been a high priority. Finding ways to cool them is a requirement that affects mechanical design.
Finding the Right Path for Electrical Systems:
Harnesses represent the nervous system of smart, connected products. They deliver power to all the electronics. They also connect them all. Delivering high voltage power through a cable can generate an electromagnetic field. One that can interfere with signals in nearby wires, sensors, and antennas. It becomes important to not only find a routing through the design that is viable mechanically but is also feasible electrically.
As you can see, there are many factors that mechanical engineers must take into account when they are developing smart, connected products.
The Consequences of System Level Prototype Failures
When it comes to integration issues like the ones we’re describing, you can just identify and then fix those issues in prototyping and testing, right?
Well, technically, an organization can take that approach. But there are consequences. It takes time and money to build a prototype and test it. System-level ones take a lot of time and money. Each one represents a significant delay in the release of those designs.
Keeping on track in terms of a schedule has become one of the most important factors in launching products on time and capturing a significant portion of market share. Unfortunately, relying on prototyping and testing to troubleshoot these kinds of issues will likely undermine efforts to get to market fast.
Empowering Better Collaboration and Validation
The alternative is to enable mechanical engineers to collaborate more closely with electrical engineers and then validate that those designs satisfy all those constraints and requirements. Powering that kind of activity with brute force simply won’t work. Today’s engineers are already maxed out in terms of bandwidth. The alternative is to empower them with the right tools for the job. That includes the following capabilities:
Tight associativity and interactive highlighting between Circuit Board design in ECAD applications and MCAD applications. This allows mechanical engineers to stay on the same page with electrical engineers for circuit board design.
Tight associativity and interactive highlight between Electrical Routed Systems design in ECAD applications and MCAD applications. This also allows mechanical engineers to work collaboratively and iteratively with electrical engineers responsible for harness design.
Simulations for Electromagnetics Interference (EMI) across the product. This provides both the mechanical and electrical engineer insight into how electronics are affected by electromagnetic fields generated by high power lines and electromechanical (actuated) components.
Thermodynamics / Fluid Dynamics Simulations that predict and validate the thermal management of embedded systems within the mechanical aspects of the product. This gives the mechanical and electrical engineer insight into the effectiveness of their cooling strategy long before prototyping and testing.
All of these designs will go through iterations quickly. It is important to configuration manage all of the designs and their representations in an effort to manage the Digital Thread. A data management solution is a key way to do that without overloading either the mechanical or electrical engineer with manual tasks.
Today’s mechanical and electrical engineers face some significant challenges in terms of designing smart, connected products. However, a number of new tools can empower them to get things right the first time instead of experiencing failures during prototyping and testing.
Decisions made by mechanical engineers directly affect the electronic and electrical aspects of smart, connected products. Those decisions affect sensors, antennas, embedded systems, and electrical routed systems.
Waiting until the prototyping and testing to identify and resolve these kinds of issues is too late. Because testing occurs very late in the design cycle, any further delays due to failures can cause a cascade of missed milestones, utlimately threatening the company's ability to launch products on time.
A number of technological capabilities, including associativity and interactive highlighting between ECAD and MCAD for circuit board and harness design, electromagnetics simulation, electronics cooling simulation, and data management can empower mechanical and electrical engineers to address these issues before prototyping and testing.
Folks, that’s my perspective on this issue. Would love to get your thoughts in the comments. Sound off here.