I like books – lots of ‘em. I rarely turn down a chance to visit a bookstore or search Amazon’s gazillion pages for a book or two on whatever topic I’m interested in at the moment. Most of my personal library contains non-fiction books that explain how to do things. Over the years I’ve found that my book collection trends toward a few categories, the largest of which are Writing, Engineering, Programming, Gardening, Home Improvement, and Business – categories where generally no one reads a book cover-to-cover. I keep my books stacked in my office within easy reach when I’m working on a project or pondering a topic and need reference information. My library is built on my personal book-buying motto “you can never have too much reference material”. While my library-building, book-buying pace has slowed in recent years, every once in a while I stumble across a gem that makes a nice addition to my reference collection. The most recent example is “Practical Switching Power Supply Design” by Marty Brown (ISBN: 0-12-137030-5).
As I do with most books, even if it’s intended to just be a reference volume in my library, I opened Marty Brown’s book to the first content page, in this case the Preface, and started to read. In paragraph one on page one, Marty states:
“In the age of specialization of electronics engineers, it becomes very difficult to maintain a level of competence within a broad range of electronics fields. Nonetheless, many engineers will be assigned design projects outside their primary field of expertise. This is done primarily because the engineer has a unique ability to learn technical subjects very quickly.”
He goes on to explain that building expertise in a new topic is often difficult simply because reference material is sometimes hard to come by. The Internet, of course, helps address the information dearth. But there is no substitute for hands-on experience, whether you’re new to a design topic or have worked in a field for years. Hands-on experience is best gained by prototyping a system to learn how it operates. Hardware prototypes, however, can be expensive – especially if you’re learning a new field (translated: you’re going to toast a few parts during the steep part of your learning curve) or still trying to nail down critical design parameters in a field you’ve worked in for years (translated: despite your years of experience, you’re having trouble figuring out why your system is toasting parts). What do you do? May I suggest trying virtual prototyping, where you assemble your system using simulation models, then analyze system performance using computer simulation.
When I work with engineers, most agree that system simulation is a good idea. But when we start discussing implementation details, I often find there are two schools of thought on the topic. In the minority are the engineers that grasp the system simulation, virtual prototyping concept and run with it. In the majority, however, are those who feel system simulation is okay for very high level architecture investigations, but understanding real system details requires a trip to the prototyping lab to build and study the system. While I’ll be the first to admit computer simulation doesn’t completely replace system prototyping, there are tools, such as those in SystemVision’s class, that come close. Success depends, to a large degree, on how you approach system modeling and simulation. To get a good idea of how to create a virtual system prototype and use computer simulation to analyze its performance, I invite you to take some time to view a recorded web seminar recently created by Mike Donnelly, one of my colleagues in the SystemVision group.
Mike works as a principle engineer with the SystemVision development team. His experience and expertise cover a broad range of system engineering topics including modeling and simulation of analog, mixed-signal, and multi-discipline systems across a similarly broad range of applications including power, controls, and mechatronics. His recent web seminar is titled “Verifying Multi-Discipline Motors, Drives, and Controls Systems”. Following a brief introduction to the SystemVision family of tools, he jumps right into a demonstration of modeling and analyzing a complete control system for an aircraft aileron. During the demonstration, Mike compares hydraulic actuator and DC motor control of the aileron. He looks at several design tasks such as component sizing/selection and control strategy trade-offs, as well as analyzing system performance metrics such as power, speed, and accuracy. He also gives a brief look into the important topic of progressive component model refinement, from high-level to high-fidelity descriptions. Along the way he illustrates how to link control strategies in Simulink, and test programs in LabVIEW, with a SystemVision simulation of the system hardware using our SystemVision conneXion (SVX) tool for integrating multiple tools and processes in a single system simulation. Mike shows you that virtual prototyping is a practical and valuable alternative to spending long hours in the lab, and lots of cash on parts, to build and test multiple hardware prototypes.
Click here for a more detailed description of Mike’s seminar, including a link to the recorded video. Don’t worry if ailerons, or even aircraft, aren’t your thing – Mike simply uses the aileron system as a vehicle to illustrate important motors, drives, and controls modeling and simulation topics. If you are interested in mechatronic systems at all, I guarantee you’ll be interested in what Mike has to say. Plan on spending about an hour to watch the entire video in one sitting. Or break it up into smaller bites of time, perhaps during half-time festivities for the several college football games you plan to watch this weekend. Then post a comment to my blog and let me know what you think.