It was an honor to be featured on the Embedded FM Podcast with hosts Elecia White and Christopher White. As a fan of podcasts with a passion for engineering, this seemed like to perfect opportunity to talk about some of my favorite subjects. The Embedded.fm podcast is dedicated to the many aspects of engineering including the how, why, and what of engineering, usually devices. Produced weekly, guests include makers, entrepreneurs, educators, technology thought leaders, and traditional engineers. It was certainly an honor to join the hosts and dive deep into the world of mechatronics with a community that shares the same love of all things motion. If you missed the podcast we’ve got you covered! So, what did we talk about anyway? Enjoy our breakdown of the show and all things engineering.
Before we go into mechatronics, a little about me. I am Doug Harriman, and I am the CTO of Simplexity where I lead our firmware, software, and systems engineering teams. My background is in mechanical engineering and mechatronics. After completing my master’s in mechanical engineering control systems, I spent 14 years at HP. After about a dozen years doing motion system development on inkjet printers, I left HP and spent a couple years at a wind turbine start-up working on a 10 kilowatt wind turbine. After that, I moved over to Simplexity where the bulk of my time is now spent managing the groups mentioned above, supporting sales and marketing, and doing systems, firmware, and motion systems development.
I was asked about the one tip everyone should know and I can’t stress my answer to this enough. Write it down! In meetings, take notes on a shared screen that everyone can see live. It’s amazing how often things are miscommunicated verbally. This tends to get unearthed immediately when people see what you write down. I’ve learned a lot of my job is communications, and writing it down is so critical.
Mechatronics vs Robotics
So, what does mechatronics mean? That’s a tough but common question I get asked. Mechatronics is a branch of engineering that deals with multidisciplinary systems, typically involving mechanical, electrical, and firmware/software components. Usually something is moving in a mechatronic system, but it could be a thermal system too.
Robotics is a subfield of mechatronics. All robots are mechatronic systems. People tend to think anthropomorphic or autonomous wheeled devices when they think about robots. Robots tend to be more flexible, whereas most mechatronic systems tend to be very job specific. All robots are mechatronic systems, but not all mechatronic systems are robots.
Motion Systems Pitfalls
As someone who has seen a lot of motion systems, I was asked about some of the common pitfalls. I think the most common pitfall is that people get really focused in on the area where they’ve got the most expertise. I’ve seen systems heavily over-designed because they were led by the EE (Electrical Engineer) and the EE really focused on the motor driver. Or, the mechanical engineer was really focused in on their piece of the problem. It’s the failure to step back and look at all of the different disciplines that have to interplay with each other well that leads to issues.
Mechanical Engineering Background
I come from a mechanical engineering background with both my bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering. My master’s was in control systems within mechanical engineering. Control systems these days are almost exclusively implemented in code, but before widespread use of microprocessors, they would be implemented with electrical components. I’ve never seen that done personally in practice, so I had to get up to speed in firmware to be able to implement my designs. I was lucky enough that HP paid for me to take some computer science and computer engineering classes remotely through Stanford allowing me to get up to speed on firmware and embedded systems.
Coming at it from a mechanical background first is very useful since all of the systems I’ve had to control were mechanical systems. You really need to understand the engineering and the physical components behind the system. I’ve seen people that have a pure CS background have a hard time understand the variability of the real world of the mechanical systems.
So, what is a Control System and how is it implemented? What I studied in grad school is all about the feedback control laws. The math behind how to model the system you want to control and the control laws. It’s really the equations about how you read some sensor data and then you determine the proper input back into the system to get it to do what you want to do. In modern control systems, typically you read some sort of sensor, maybe through an analog to digital converter (A2D) or over an SPI bus or i2c bus, you do some math looking at that the sensor value read versus what you want it to, and then you make an adjustment to a control output. The control output could be from a digital to analog converter (D2A), but is typically a PWM signal. Basically, you’re reading a sensor comparing it to what you want that sensor reading to be, and then applying a control output.
Control Systems Clip
If you enjoyed the first part of the Embedded FM Podcast interview, make sure you check out the second part as we dive even deeper into the engineering behind mechatronics and motion and tune in to hear the entire podcast right here 🎤.
Do you have a question about mechatronics, robotics, motion systems, control systems, or mechanical engineering? Drop us a line and let us know how we can help!