Lenze Americas: Bringing mechatronics to materials handling

Thinking holistically about system design can deliver big dividends

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If you’ve never heard of mechatronics, you’re not alone. Neither had I until I talked to Tom Jensen.

Jensen is a technology evangelist for Lenze Americas, a provider of controls, drives and software used to build automated materials handling systems. Evangelist is a job title that by definition involves spreading the Gospel. Jensen and I may not have had an altar call, but by the end of the conversation I was intrigued by the concept because I think it fits a theme about breaking down traditional silos that we’re increasingly seeing in the market.

So just what is mechatronics? “The simple definition is that it’s a blending of three disciplines of electrical, mechanical and software with a specific purpose of incorporating the software control of a mechanical device,” Jensen told me.

In traditional control design, Jensen explained, an OEM would have departments dedicated to electrical, mechanical and software design. Each of those departments, however, operated in their own silos. That could lead to inefficiencies.

Jensen uses a case packer to illustrate the point. The design process may begin with an elegant mechanical solution, but with little insight into the power consumption or the required controls. “The mechanical engineers come up with a very cool machine that requires servo motos,” says Jensen. “But, if they had handled the mechanics differently, they might not have needed servos. In the alternative, they may do something mechanically to get flexibility that could easily have been handled with software.”

In a mechatronics environment, a project manager with experience across all three disciplines can recognize the opportunities to take cost out of a system or to improve performance without adding cost. In many instances, the result will be incremental improvements with long term benefits. “In a manufacturing line, there’s not a lot of short-term improvement you can do in a factory,” says Jensen. “But, over time, you can get big opportunities.”

Needless to say, mechatronics is an approach embraced by Lenze, otherwise Jensen and I would not have been having that conversation. For the end user, he says, a mechantronics approach results in machines and systems that address operational needs while being easier to integrate and maintain. “If adopted properly, mechatronics will allow for better and smarter machines that reduce the complexity of mechanical systems,” he says.

I see it as part of a larger trend, that of everyone from the transportation planner to the designer of unit load packaging recognizing that what they do has an impact on what happens downstream and upstream of wherever they play. Those who can take a more holistic view of their role in the supply chain can produce solutions with much greater impact. 

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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