Get Real About MCAD-ECAD Integration

When basic household goods like thermostats and washing machines are stacked with enough custom software and electronics to rival the average computing device, it’s hard to remain a purist about mechanical engineering.

For years, the mantra has been all about forging tighter connections between mechanical and electrical engineering disciplines, and more recently, embedded software. Yet despite all the lip service paid to the idea of electromechanical or mechatronics design, a strong silo mentality remains regardless of the growing complexity of products and the difficulties that complexity presents to the overall engineering challenge.

Ed-Watch this quick and informative video to learn more about electronics in mechanical product design:

A Tech-Clarity report exploring the complexity of systems and software-driven innovation confirms companies are still struggling with this dilemma. According to the research, integrating design across disciplines is a major pain point for almost half of the respondents surveyed. Slightly over half of the companies (51%) have integrated, but separate teams for mechanical, electrical, and software engineering. It’s not much of a leap to infer that while the core engineering disciplines are dabbling in some collaboration, it’s not nearly enough to ensure optimal design outcomes.

Yet without consistent collaboration and inter-disciplinary design practices, engineering groups have a hard time managing and staying abreast of design changes. In a traditional workflow, mechanical engineers go about their design tasks using one set of tools (typically MCAD software) while electrical engineers work on their stuff in parallel with a wholly different set of ECAD software. Sure there are periodic check-ins between groups and some basic file exchange using formats such as IDF, but even so, there is limited visibility into each of the siloed group’s work-in-progress.

The risk to approaching detailed mechanical and electrical design separately, or at best, in a loosely coupled fashion, is that companies are far more likely to miss any disconnects or problems until late in the design stage when it’s far too costly and time-consuming to make changes.

Just ask Airbus about its experience with the Airbus A380 commercial aircraft, universally considered an engineering marvel. This project might just be the poster child for how sub-par integration between electrical and mechanical engineering disciplines can rear its ugly head. The aircraft was delayed by almost two years and went billions over budget when it was discovered late in the game that the complex wiring harness system wasn’t a proper fit with the metal airframe. Sure, other factors came into play, but one of the key culprits was the lack of integration between disparate MCAD, ECAD, and other design tools employed by the various global design teams.

The Internet of Things (IoT), the brave new world where every product or “thing” can connect to other “smart” things in the IoT universe, will take the need for electromechanical design practices to a whole new level. All “things” are outfitted with sensors and electronics that have to fit and work effectively within a smaller and smaller footprint. As more powerful chipsets generate more heat, thermal management becomes a critical design issue–one that requires integrated electromechanical design processes that break down those pesky silos and address the design problem from the very beginning.

Making the Transition

While creating an effective culture for cross-disciplinary design collaboration falls squarely on management, there is plenty the average engineer can do to advance the cause. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Lose the over the wall mentality well before it becomes a management mandate. While electrical design and ECAD may not be your primary responsibility or area of interest, there’s no denying its importance to your piece of the design. It’s time to bone up on core electrical engineering concepts and learn the language of the other side to set the stage for effective cross-discipline collaboration.
  • Get familiar with the tools. No, you don’t have to suddenly become an expert in ECAD or PCB layout, but it wouldn’t hurt to get a basic feel and understanding for the traditional ECAD toolset. Better still, become an advocate within your organization for new tools and capabilities that create a seamless bridge between the ECAD and MCAD worlds.
  • Embrace cross-disciplinary responsibility. Make it a point to align with the champions behind electromechanical workflows and be a frontrunner for refining and implementing the new design practices. Doing so puts you in a great position to be seen as a pioneer within the broader engineering organization.

Whether the product is world-class jet liners or consumer electronics devices, few companies can afford to miss their window of opportunity to get products to market in a timely fashion. Without an overhaul to support effective, early-stage electromechanical design collaboration, companies remain at risk for getting derailed by late-stage design snafus that could have been easily avoided.