Mechatronics in design

“The mechatronic designer needs a wide knowledge with medium depth”, Dieter Müller

Products are becoming increasingly more complex from a developer’s point of view; they contain more functionality, feature an ever increasing difficulty of said functionality, and touch on more disciplines than ever before. The term often used to describe systems that integrate multiple disciplines is mechatronic systems.

Mechatronics is the multidisciplinary field of engineering, combining mechanical, electronic, computer, software, control and systems engineering. It aims to move away from designing separate mono-disciplinary systems to a design process where all different fields of engineering are combined and fully integrated, for example by using models and principles to translate concepts across domains.

Projects at Benchmark involve mechatronics to a varying degree, as there is a wide variety in ratio of disciplines and project size. Good communication between the disciplines is clearly key in order for the project to be as efficiënt as possible, but also to avoid error and redundant work. In general the team, supported by the program manager, is capable of handling this process very well.

Seldomly though, a project presents itself that is highly complicated in project member amount and structure, as well as on a component level. In such cases a systems engineering approach proves imperative in order to efficiently coordinate such a large multidisciplinary team.

Heat, smoke and molten metal

Non-Ferro Gieterij Oldenzaal

The product we’re currently working on features custom metal components, which has allowed me to brush up on my metallurgy. From raw shaping to surface treatment, all aspects come into play, and forms a nice break from the usual polymers.

One of the metal components is used to contain X-rays, which makes the choice of material, as well as proper process control, paramount. Steel for example blocks radiation quite well and is relatively easy to process, but you require a thick wall to block the radiation. Bronze is more efficient at blocking X-rays, but has a higher viscosity during casting compared to steel and foundries consider it a more exotic material to work with.

Casting defects such as blowholes will locally reduce the wall thickness and form a potential radiation leak. Thus these defects need to be controlled and compensated for.

One could ask: why not simply apply a lead lining if one wants to block X-rays? ROHS compliancy prevents such extensive use of lead, not to mention that applying the radiation blocking layer would be completely reliant on the quality of assembly – the latter is quite a risk, not to mention labour intensive.

Other components are oil-filled sand casted aluminium parts. Surface quality and treatment are a bit of an issue however with this (cheap) production method. The sand casting process is a manual process, so each product will be unique with its own slight blemishes. Vibratory finishes followed by sand blasting and/or glass bead blasting will aid in smoothing the surface, but may not be sufficient. Electroless nickel or galvanised chrome may be used to harden the surface and make it scratch resistant, but their cosmetic effect is limited. Unfortunately anodising for a decorative effect is not an option with sand-casted components, as it will lead to a blotchy surface. All-in-all it’s quite the learning experience.

Today I’ve been lucky enough to receive a tour of the foundry here at Non-Ferro Gieterij Oldenzaal (after reviewing samples), which has both a modern and a more traditional workshop. Out of all metal manufacturing processes I have to say that sand casting has got to be my favourite one. The process is just so raw, pure and tough. All one needs is sand as mould material held together by some wooden planks: in goes the molten metal, and out comes the desired shape. All accompanied by intense heat, sparks, smoke, and the fiery smell of burning metal that will linger in your clothes and skin for days on end: it’s awesome. 🙂

Bedrijvendagen (business days) Twente

During the Bedrijvendagen (business days) at the University of Twente, a series of activities are organised which promote contact between students, PhD’s and graduates on the one side and potential employers on the other. Every year about 2,000 students and graduates meet with approximately 125 companies at this event. As a company with a branch in Twente, Benchmark Almelo was asked to attend. Along with several of my colleagues I’ve been asked to represent Benchmark at this event, to put a fresh face on the rather dusty image engineers seem to have in the public eye.

Like other OEM’s, Benchmark struggles with having a presence on the job market. Due to the nature of their work, confidentiality prohibits them from sharing the majority of their projects, which exacerbates attracting talented personnel. By attending business events such as the Bedrijvendagen Benchmark hopes to change this. Today’s been quite succesful; we’ve had contact with a decent amount of genuinely interested students and graduates, and we’ve managed to put the company name out there. Hopefully Benchmark will continue running this course, as attracting talented employees is paramount for innovation.

RapidPro 2013

The third edition of RapidPro is currently taking place, which features all the latest in the field of rapid prototyping / additive manufacturing for consumer and industrial applications alike. Rapid prototyping is maturing at a fast rate, offering benefits from manufacturing methods for small series to hardware customisation options for consumers.

The latter is something that genuinely excites me: we can expect the hardware equivalent of open source software to create custom objects. It will bring the producer closer to the consumer, stimulates modularity (ultimately leading to less wasteful consumerism, as contradictory as that may sound), and promotes decentralisation (another great development I could talk about for hours on end).

At Benchmark Electronics the focus lies on high-end industrial and medical products; both types of products tend to be produced in relatively low numbers, so it is very important to select the appropriate production method in order to be as cost-effective as possible. Rapid prototyping is on the opposite end of the scale when compared to large series injection moulding (and there is a whole world in between), so it is definitely valuable to stay up-to-date with the latest techniques.

At the moment I’m most interested in developments regarding metal sintering techniques, high definition lithography, (simultaneously) printing materials with widely varying characteristics, and 3D scanning. All of which are represented at this event, so consider me pleased. 😛 By the way, please remind me to put up pictures later.

Website design

My ex-girlfriend has been trying to find a job, but has not had much success so far. As we are all aware (or experienced ourselves) the job market is quite competitive at the moment; one has to really stand out from the crowd to capture the attention of potential employers.

The latter is exactly what she has in mind: she has a great idea to try and land a job in the field of digital marketing, which is what she is after. In a nutshell: she will target potential employers with facebook ads and direct them to a landing page that contains her curriculum vitae. She worried her design and development skills were not good enough to create said landing page, so she called in a favour – of course, I was willing to help her out.

Regarding the design, she had a rough idea of the style and content. Basically, the landing page would be a single scrolling page and would form a short linear story, all as succinct as possible in a bright and fresh style. It would welcome the visitor, explain the purpose, describe work experience and education, paint a picture of her future goals, and lastly offer the visitor means of contacting her.

Through a few iteration rounds, the design took shape. The design was created in Illustrator to keep it as flexible as possible, provided photos were edited with Photoshop of course. To code the site properly and efficiently, a good friend was willing to help out – he’s absolutely amazing at coding, nobody works as structural and diligent as he does.

The final result can be found here. The site really reflects who she is (in all its quirkiness :P) and where her interests lie. Hopefully the effort will be rewarded and an employer will offer her the opportunity she’s been looking for.

Visiting CNC Speedform

I’m in Germany! Nothing special there I guess: my phone always seems to think it’s in Germany anyway. 😛 I’m here to visit one of our preferred suppliers for rapid prototyped parts: CNC Speedform. We need to make some arrangements regarding lead time, considering the current project is a rather fast paced one, but we also need to discuss our options for structural foam moulding.

Structural foam moulding (SFM) is a low-pressure foam injection moulding technique for thermoplastics that is well suited for the production of large technical structural elements and housings. It is a particularly good choice for medium-sized series in which high demands are placed on the stiffness and surface quality of the product. The design rules for SFM are quite different from regular injection moulding: for example, the minimum overall wall thickness should be 5mm, the wall thickness is allowed to vary a lot, electromagnetic shielding is possible, and surface collapse should not be an issue. As you can tell it’s an exciting production technique to work with that offers a lot of possibilities.

I’m looking forward to the tour of the facility: CNC Speedform has 9.500 m2 of production space and an impressive machine park. I will include pictures of the visit in this entry.

Wildfire update training

Let me start with a brief update: Benchmark offered me a contract which I could not refuse, so I’m back here once more. Considering recent events in my life and of course the excellent learning opportunities offered by Benchmark, I’ll hang around for a while. 😛

My contract starts coming Monday, but I really wanted to attend today’s training course. Benchmark has recently upgraded their PRO/Engineer CAD software to Creo Elements, and seeing as Benchmark use custom scripts to support their quality assurance, upgrading their CAD platforms can be quite an ordeal.

Today we’ll learn about all the new features that Creo Elements has to offer, which of course I can’t pass up on. Considering PRO/Engineer isn’t the only CAD platform used by Benchmark (it depends on the client which platform is used), every opportunity to improve on CAD skills is welcome.

Fragile: handle with care

Glasrijk Tubbergen is an annual event, with several exhibitions in the field of stained glass, glass sculptures, antique glassware, glass objects, glass design and interior design. This year’s event is the 16th in line and follows the same pattern as previous years with a diverse collection displayed in various inside and outdoor locations around Tubbergen, which especially in the outdoor locations creates esoteric scenes.

This year the collection features curatorial works, pieces from an educational programme, and works from collections of artists, galleries and factories. Noteworthy in the curatorial part is the cooperation with the National Glass Museum and the Rijksmuseum Twenthe, providing a range of pieces: from thick moulded glass to thin blown glass, from modern objects to 17th century pieces.

Renowned artists, like Menno Jonker, are represented, Toin Rijven’s gallery has brought Czech glass from Jan Exnar to the table, but new artists are also featured at this event, such as Marinke van Zandwijk or students from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. Click on the image at the top for some pictures from the event.

As design engineer, you always try to look for new materials and production techniques that can be applied, combined, or integrated in a novel way when developing new concepts, products or solutions. Of course, sometimes it can just be pleasant to look outside your field for inspiration. Glass is not a material you often come in contact with when designing a product (with the exception of packaging design), but it is an inspiring material to work with. Watching the glass blowing demonstration by Mark Locock for example was quite mesmerising: to watch the fluidity of the material, the transition of colours along the spectrum, the corresponding flexible work process, etc.

What stood out to me with this event, something I have noticed the previous years as well, is the lack of variety in the audience. There are only two age groups present: over 50 and around 15, the latter doing it as part of a school assignment. It is a shame there appears to be no broad interest for the event, as the wide range of objects should surely appeal to a broad audience.

Master of Science degree

When I walked out of the door of my university today, I left it no longer as a student, but (perhaps a tad cynical to say) unemployed and ready to face new challenges. In my hands a stack of gifts and papers, most importantly of all: my master’s degree in industrial design engineering (MSc.). With a cumulative total of 342 out of 300 required EC (study credits), an 8 out of 10 average for my master subjects, and a 9 out of 10 for my final master assignment, I am quite pleased with the result. Hopefully it will help me open doors and give me a chance to demonstrate my skills and prove myself.

Master of Science degree

I quite liked the master track coordinator’s explanation of his grading system for the master assignment. The grade for the master assignment is comprised of several grades: presentation, report, defence, and quality of the final design. He, an experienced product designer, explained the grade for the quality of the final design as follows: “I give a design a 7/10 if I think I could’ve done a better job; an 8/10 if I think I could’ve produced a result of similar quality; a 9/10 if I think I perhaps could’ve produced a result of similar quality with a lot of effort; and finally a 10/10 remains for a product design I consider out of my league.” – my design received the full 10/10 score.

The past few months leading up to my graduation have not been exactly easy due to personal circumstances. It all started several months ago when my now ex-girlfriend started having doubts about starting our life together, with the nearing graduation date being the catalyst for these doubts. I’ve supported her and urged her to explore those feelings, for it could not be left unresolved. As time went on, we both started to realise that she is in fact lesbian. Not an easy thing to deal with for her, so I have tried my very best to support her in this life changing realisation, losing track of myself in the process. This was last month: she has moved on now. I’ve only just begun picking up the pieces and taking care of myself.

Anyway, back to the original topic: getting used to the idea of not being a student anymore shouldn’t be an issue, as I’ve been working at Benchmark Electronics for the past two years now. It’s just a bit of a shame that due to confidentiality I cannot share any of my work of the last two years; I feel I have really progressed with Benchmark’s guidance and of course I would love to show that. Before looking for a job, I think I’ll take some time off to relax and figure out where to go from here.

Back at Benchmark Electronics

Precisely one year after starting my bachelor assignment at Benchmark Electronics, I’m back in the IDME department (industrial design & mechanical engineering) to start working on my master assignment. One exception though: I moved a desk to the left. 😛

To supplement my skillset based on consumer and industrial products, I’ve decided to take on a medical project. The different standards, procedures and shareholders I will encounter (to just name a few) should form an interesting learning experience.

Also, considering the duration of the assignment there’s a great opportunity to get familiar with Creo Elements/Pro, formerly Pro/ENGINEER. It is an advanced CAD/CAM/CAE modelling program that offers extensive functionality for mechanical engineering purposes and is the standard within the company. It has been on my wish list for a while now, so this is the perfect chance.

Unfortunately, same as last time, a non-disclosure agreement prevents me from sharing information regarding the project, but suffice it to say I’m excited about the project and the opportunities that will arise. 🙂


My blog describes events from my life related to design and engineering. Hopefully it will give you more insight into my work processes and personal interests.

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