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Mechatronics 17 (2007) 480488

A mechatronics educational laboratory Programmable logic controllers and material handling experiments
Hany Bassily a, Rajat Sekhon a, David E. Butts


, John Wagner


a Department of Mechanical Engineering, Clemson University, Clemson, SC 29634, United States Engineering Technologies and Engineering Transfer Midlands Technical College, Columbia, SC 29202, USA

Received 13 February 2006; accepted 19 June 2007

Abstract The integration of robotics, conveyors, sensors, and programmable logic controllers into manufacturing and material handling processes requires engineers with technical skills and expertise in these systems. The coordination of assembly operations and supervisory control demands familiarity with mechanical and electrical design, instrumentation, actuators, and computer programming for successful system development. This paper presents an educational mechatronics laboratory that encourages multi-disciplinary hands-on engineering discovery within team settings. Three focused progressive experiments are reviewed that allow students to program and operate a programmable logic controller, a traditional conveyor system, and a distributed servo-motor based conveyor. The students also program and implement two robotic arms for material handling applications. The equipment, learning objectives, and experimental methodology for each laboratory are discussed to oer insight. A collaborative design project case study is presented in which student teams create a smart material handling system. Overall, engineering graduates have generally been required to learn material handling and other multidisciplinary concepts in the eld, and therefore, a well-rounded engineering curriculum should incorporate mechatronics in both the classroom and laboratory. 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Mechatronics; Programmable logic controllers; Conveyors; Robotics; Sensors

1. Introduction Consumer product manufacturers increasingly rely on the cooperative development of multi-disciplinary technical systems that often span the electrical, mechanical, and industrial engineering domains. Design and production engineers are frequently organized into cross-functional teams in which members bring critical skills to the assembled group [1]. To facilitate multi-disciplinary teams, engineers must develop their teamwork, problem solving, synergistic design, and communication skills as well as the traditional technical competencies [2,3]. Further, it is
Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 (864) 656 7376; fax: +1 (864) 656 4435. E-mail addresses: buttsd@midlandstech.edu (D.E. Butts), jwagner@ clemson.edu (J. Wagner). 1 Tel.: +1 (803) 738 7833; fax: +1 (803) 738 7809. 0957-4158/$ - see front matter 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.mechatronics.2007.06.004

increasingly presumed that competitive engineering graduates will have these skill sets in place and be able to contribute immediately to their assigned teams [4]. In essence, the expanding implementation of sensors, actuators, and digital control across all engineering systems suggest that students need a mechatronic systems perspective [5] with an opportunity to develop leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills. The availability of mechatronic courses within the engineering curriculum can help prepare students for the global workplace. During the past decade, mechatronics education has received signicant worldwide attention. Ranaweera et al. [6] discuss the required introductory mechatronic laboratory course at the University of California at Santa Barbara which focuses on sensors and actuators while accommodating large numbers of engineering students. Grimheden [7] reports on the KIH University mechatronics

H. Bassily et al. / Mechatronics 17 (2007) 480488


Adept CS7 Controller

220 VAC 110 VAC Air Supply Air Solenoid Unloading Station Conveyor # 2 Air Cylinder Turn Table Power Bus 110/220 VAC

PC Monitor (Robot Host)


Access Door

Proximity Sensors



Conveyor # 1

Labeling Station 24 VDC Power Supply 110 VAC

PC # 1 (PLC Host)

Staublis Range of Operation

Loading Station Restricted Access

Unrestricted Access

Fig. 1. Schematic diagram for a material handling educational laboratory.

course that prepares engineers for global workplaces through international collaborations. Surgenor et al. [8] use active learning strategies including lectures, tutorials, laboratories, and cooperative design projects with integrated sensors in the technical elective mechatronics course at Queens University. Student teams apply electronics and microcontrollers in the design of mobile robots. Minor and Meek [9] stress open-ended problems for integrated systems in the required two-semester mechatronics design course at the University of Utah. The mechatronics course at Bucknell University emphasizes interdisciplinary student teams and active learning strategies [10]. Bushnell and Crick [11] describe the hands-on experiences provided to students by three autonomous robotic courses at the University of Washington. Finally, the University of Maryland Eastern Shores [12] has established a mechatronics laboratory which features an industrial selective compliance articulated robot arm with overhead machine vision for guidance and part inspection. The educational mechatronics laboratory (ME 417L/ 617L) has been developed within the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Clemson University [13]. The experiments are student team designed, fabricated, implemented, and demonstrated based on assigned design projects. In this manner, students assume ownership for the laboratory creation process. Note that some design projects may continue for multiple semesters due to their complexity. The laboratory features workstations in which electro-mechanical, pneumatic, and hydraulic systems are controlled with programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and personal computers running LabVIEW. These systems include a basic industrial light stack experiment, pneumatic actuators, motor control with torque measurements,

hydraulic cylinder/motor control, vehicle suspension system, robotic arms, drag chain conveyor system, and smart MicroRollerTM 2 based conveyor sections. Students with rudimentary programming skills and presumably no-practical experience with mechatronic systems can quickly learn how to incorporate control architectures. One subcategory of mechatronics that merits attention is material handling which includes robot arm object placement, conveyor transport, and process control (refer to Fig. 1). The traditional conveyor system has been successfully applied in manufacturing and material handling applications for many years. In standard congurations, a single motor drives a sheave, which in turn drives a rubber conveyor belt riding on gravity rollers or idlers (e.g., [14]). However, one disadvantage of the typical conveyor technology is that every point on the conveyor moves at the same speed and time. Hence, there does not exist an opportunity for the localized optimization of the individual assembly steps. Increasingly, engineers are partitioning conveyor systems into smaller focused segments that can be controlled independently depending on the factors such as: (i) localized product ow rate; (ii) need for product buffering; and (iii) process inconsistencies. One strategy to construct such a conveyor system is with individuallymotorized rollers such as MicroRollers, which contain integrated dc motors and drivers that easily lend themselves to PLC control.

2 MicroRoller is a registered trademark of Sparks Belting Company, Grand Rapids, MI.


H. Bassily et al. / Mechatronics 17 (2007) 480488

Fig. 2. Programmable logic controller with light stack: (a) exterior view, and (b) electrical layout.

This paper is organized as follows. Section 2 presents an introduction to programmable logic controllers and the light stack experiment. Section 3 discusses experiments with traditional and smart conveyor systems. Section 4 presents educational and industrial robotic arms for part placement operations. A case study is oered in Section 5 to highlight a representative student design project; in this instance, the creation of a smart material handling system by two design teams. Finally, Section 6 contains the summary. 2. Programmable logic controller experiments In the mechatronics laboratory, students learn to program PLCs [15] and then apply the equipment in electromechanical and pneumatic systems. Although other PLC programming languages (e.g., sequential function chart, function block diagram, structured text, and instruction list) have been standardized per IEC 1131-3 [16] in addition to ladder logic, this laboratory focuses on the latter. The widespread use of PLCs in industrial processes justies the allocation of lecture and laboratory time to explore PLC hardware architecture and programming. The laboratory features a variety of student-fabricated experiments; ve are controlled by AllenBradley PLCs (MicroLogixTM 3 1000 and 1500). The PLCs are programmed via Windows-based personal computers using the software package RSLogix 500, which provides a graphical user interface (GUI) for creation of the ladder logic rungs. The rst PLC programming experiment is control of an AllenBradley industrial light stack (855E), which features red, amber, and green 24VDC lamps with an audible alarm. These devices can be used for many purposes in a manufacturing process such as signaling whether the system is ready, busy, or at fault. For this initial on/o experiment, though, the lamps are programmed for a trac light sequence.
3 RSLogix and MicroLogix are registered trademarks of AllenBradley, Milwaukee, WI.

As shown in Fig. 2, the electrical cabinet contains the MicroLogix 1000 PLC, a Sola 2.5A 24VDC power supply, and various user-selectable panel switches and lamps. The reader is referred to [17] for the wiring schematic. Using basic ladder logic, the students congure the PLCs to sequence the light towers as follows. Step 0: Program begins with a red lamp on tower 1 and green lamp on tower 2. Step 1: Tower 2 switches to amber while tower 1 remains red. Step 2: Tower 1 switches to green as tower 2 switches to red. Step 3: Tower 1 switches to amber while tower 2 remains red. The sequence then repeats until interrupted by the user. The learning objectives of the trac light experiment are to: (i) understand PLC architecture, controller internal wiring, and external light stack interface; (ii) demonstrate fundamental PLC I/O operations; and (iii) design a control algorithm to generate a trac light sequence with appropriate timing. 3. Conveyor systems for material handling The automated transportation of materials between two manufacturing cells is a common process on the factory oor (e.g., [18]). In the mechatronics laboratory, two dierent conveyor systems are studied. The rst is a common two-strand drag-chain conveyor system that provides uniform motion along the length of the connected rubber belts on the outer edge. The second is a distributed motorized roller conveyor system which oers exible package motion based on the availability of multiple bi-directional MicroRollers. In other words, conveyor system materials can be individually controlled in cooperation with sensors located adjacent to the platform. 3.1. Traditional conveyor experiment A custom scaled conveyor belt system, shown in Fig. 3, allows engineering students to control part motion using integrated actuators, sensors, and PLC control. The industrial two strand drag-chain conveyor system, operated by

H. Bassily et al. / Mechatronics 17 (2007) 480488


Micro Logix 1000 PLC O/1 O/2 O/3

Relay 1

Motor 1

Conveyor Belt
Relay 2 Motor 2 Cylinder Pneumatic Solenoid O/4 O/5 O/6 O/7 O/8 I/1 I/2 I/3 I/4 I/5 I/6 Manifold Proximity Sensor/ Switch Air Supply 24 VDC Red Yellow Green 110 VAC Power Supply

PC (PLC Host)


Buttons 1 3 5 2 4 6

Light/Siren Stack Siren

Fig. 3. Drag belt conveyor system with pneumatic actuator: (a) layout, and (b) signal schematic.

208VAC single-phase motors with the belts in series, carries small pallets under computer control. The motors are operated by electrical relays switched by the PLC. A 24VDC optical proximity sensor (Square D PE8TANSS), with a 50 mm range, detects the position of an aluminum pallet on the belt. An inductive proximity switch (Square D PJD312N) with a 3 mm range provides information for pneumatic activation. A vertically mounted SMC pneumatic actuator (NCDMW-075-0605) exists for part retrieval; the cylinder is attached to a sky hook which lifts the part o the belt. The MicroLogix 1000 PLC is programmed to move the belt until the pallet is positioned and the pneumatic actuator can retrieve the part from the conveyor. A pneumatic distribution manifold, containing a series of PLC-controlled 24VDC SMC solenoid valves (VQ2101-5), regulates the air supply for the actuator. The AllenBradley light stack and alarm, used in the trac light experiment, provides visual and audible feedback. In the undergraduate curriculum, this is one of the rst encounters with a practical industrial system. The exible conveyor system design allows the student teams to integrate dierent sensors to track the pallet motion and explore dierent control strategies. The basic functionality

of the conveyor system is to position a small pallet on the line for subsequent pickup and removal by a pneumatic actuator for sorting purposes. The learning objectives for this laboratory experiment are to: (i) understand the operation and application of proximity and optical sensors; (ii) explore sensor, actuator, and PLC integration issues; (iii) design ladder diagrams to control pallet motion; and (iv) create test scenarios to validate controller functionality. 3.2. Smart conveyor system The second conveyor system, shown in Fig. 4, is a smart unit that operates on a dierent principle than the traditional drag chain conveyor. This conveyor element contains three MicroRollers (24VDC brushless motor, 4.8 cm diameter, 35.6 cm length) interspersed with 13 non-motorized common idler rollers. A variety of operating congurations are possible. For instance, each motorized and adjacent non-motorized roller can be linked by a rubber belt to create individually-controlled zones along the conveyors length. Each MicroRoller has a controller card with inputs for on/o commands, direction commands, and the 24VDC power supply. The roller speed is adjust-


H. Bassily et al. / Mechatronics 17 (2007) 480488

Cylinders Air Supply Proximity Sensors Micro Logix / 1500 PLC I/1 I/2 I/3 I/4 I/5 I/6 I/7 I/8 O/1 O/2 O/3 O/4 O/5 O/6 O/7 O/8 O/9 O/10 O/11 O/12 Pneumatic Solenoids


PC#1 (PLC Host)

Smart Controller Cards


6 4 Controller Cards 3 3 4

Light/Siren Stack Siren Red

Buttons 1 3 5 2 4 6

Air Cylinder I/15 I/16 I/17 I/18 I/19 I/20

Yellow Green Power Supply 24VDC

O/13 O/14 O/15 Robot Controller

110 VAC

Smart Rollers

Proximity Sensors

Fig. 4. Smart conveyor system with PLC and light tower: (a) layout, and (b) signal schematic.

able, but the driver cards are not currently congured for electronic control. The conveyor is controlled by a MicroLogix 1500 PLC. Unlike the MicroLogix 1000, the MicroLogix 1500 accepts add-on hardware cards to accommodate a large number of both digital and analog devices. Currently, a 24VDC sinking output module provides the interface between the PLC and the MicroRoller cards. The experimental system also includes an Allen Bradley light stack with audible alarm (similar to Section 2), moveable optical proximity sensors attached along the conveyor edges, and an array of multi-purpose control panel push buttons that may be programmed as needed by the students. Using a building block approach, multiple 121.9 cm long uniform conveyor systems allow a recongurable material handling approach. Note that the conveyor system is controlled by a single MicroLogix 1500. In this laboratory, the student teams are required to program the PLC to optically detect the placement of a part on

the conveyor by a robotic arm. For example, the PLC can be programmed to take advantage of the independent zone control concept to sequentially move each newlyarrived part to the furthest-available zone until all the conveyor zones are loaded. Next, the PLC can supervise the unloading of the conveyor system. The learning objectives for this experiment include: (i) use of proximity sensors to control the motion of objects on conveyor systems, (ii) programming of the MicroLogix 1500 PLC (and comparison to the MicroLogix 1000 PLC) to sequentially move parts on the conveyor system, (iii) integration of the conveyor system with robotic arms for material handling, and (iv) control and coordination of multiple conveyor systems for various operations. 4. Robotic arms programming and system integration Industrial robotic systems are used in manufacturing environments in three general manners: (i) part pick/place

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operations; (ii) non-contact trajectory based tasks (e.g., welding); and (iii) contact tasks including component assembly [19]. The Mechatronics Laboratory features two robotic arms, a UMI RT100 and a Staubli RX130 which students can program and interface with the conveyor systems (refer to Fig. 5). The RT100 robotic arm provides an excellent platform for a general introduction and initial set of programming assignments. Next, the industrial grade RX130 robotic arm can be programmed to transport components between storage bins and the conveyor sections to realize an integrated material handling system. 4.1. UMI RT100 robotic arm The UMI RT100 selective compliant assembly robot arm (SCARA) is a six degree-of-freedom (DOF) robot (e.g., vertical, shoulder, elbow, yaw, pitch, and roll) with an additional DOF for the end gripper. A stepper motor is associated with each joint movement. Motion is transferred from the motor to the designated joint through a belt drive, which serves as a mechanical fuse to foster a safe environment for students to investigate manipulators. Communication occurs between the robotic arm and the host computer using an intelligent peripherals communications protocol (IPC) and RS-232 serial connection. The IPC protocol constitutes a communication level that can be directly accessed through specic commands. Data and command transfers are executed within an 8.0e-03s communication frame; the actual time amount depends on the action. The remainder of this communication frame is designated for two IPCs which control the joint motions. On the host, motor controller commands are contained in RT100 library functions that are embedded in a PASCAL or C++ script. The desired robot end gripper coordinates are entered in the form of encoder counts from the home position corresponding to specic angles of rotation for each motor. The desired arm speed is entered as a percentage of maximum speed.

The student teams are tasked to program the robotic arm to pick up objects from a pre-staged parts platform and deposit them onto the smart conveyor. The conveyor transports the objects through a series of sensor zones to a terminal stage for further processing. To facilitate the programming activities, the robotic arm positions (or poses) have been pre-determined and supplied to the students. These key positions include the wait (e.g., hover over a part) and pick (e.g., position gripper around a part) poses for each part to be placed on the conveyor. Similarly, positions may be dened for conveyor unloading. The learning objectives of this experiment can be summarized as: (i) understand the basic operation and terminology of robotic arms including library commands and communication principles; (ii) develop algorithms which command the robotic arm to pick/place objects; (iii) investigate the limitations of open loop operation for material placement; and (iv) apply problem solving (software and hardware) skills to realize proper robotic system operation. 4.2. Staubli RX130 robotic arm The Staubli RX130 robot is an industrial six DOF arm with accompanying control cabinet and computer console. Each robotic arm joint is activated by a brushless induction motor through a gear drive; the joint speeds vary from 185/s for the shoulder joint to 580/s for the end eector. The robotic arm contains two pneumatic solenoid valves linked to external couplers in the base to activate optional peripherals. The control cabinet includes an Adept CS7 controller and power ampliers to drive the motors. Communication with the Adept controller can be established by three means: (i) a pendant console attached to the cabinet which features predened arm functions; (ii) a computer terminal using V+ language commands or a Windowsbased GUI to communicate with the controller; and (iii) network connections with a remote computer terminal.

Fig. 5. Robotic arms for programming and material handling: (a) UMI RT100, and (b) Staubli RX130.


H. Bassily et al. / Mechatronics 17 (2007) 480488

The complexity of the robotic system provides a variety of educational challenges; three sequential assignments will be discussed. First, students review the safety guidelines and multi-faceted functionality of this industrial robot. Second, students learn the V+ interface language and program the robot to achieve basic motion. The robotic arm should be able to retrieve parts from a staging platform and place them on a stationary conveyor; the reversed operation should also be demonstrated. Third, student teams integrate the robotic arm into a material handling system which features the single section conveyor shown in Fig. 4a. The robotic arm places parts from a storage platform onto the conveyor system; the conveyor transports them; and the robotic arm subsequently retrieves the parts. The learning objectives for the Staubli robotic arm experiment include: (i) appreciate the safety procedures for industrial robots; (ii) understand typical robotic applications in the workplace; (iii) learn the V+ language; (iv) create V+ algorithms to perform object pick/place operations; (v) understand the dierences between openloop and closed-loop operations; and (vi) integrate the robotic arm and smart conveyor system. 5. Case study smart material handling system An important aspect of this technical elective course is the completion of hands on design projects which focus on the creation of educational laboratory experiments with accompanying users manual and series of assignments. Teams of approximately 68 mechanical and electrical engineering undergraduate/graduate students design, analyze, procure, fabricate, demonstrate, and document a safe mechatronics system using concepts learned in this and other engineering classes. For this case study, two design teams collaborated to create a material handling system with modular conveyor elements (Section 3.2) and robotic arm (Section 4.2) for part pick/place/transport operations. Conveyor System (Team #1): A material handling system will be created and applied to demonstrate manufacturing part transport and interaction with an industrial robotic arm. The team tasks include: (i) fabrication of a 121.9 cm long conveyor section with MicroRollers to accompany an existing section, (ii) design and fabrication of a 90 pneumatic turn table to move objects between the conveyors, (iii) PLC programming to control package movement, (iv) coordination of robot and conveyor elements for pick/place operations, and (v) create laboratory manual. Robotic Arm Programming (Team #2): An industrial grade Stabuli robotic arm has been installed in a safety enclosure located in Cook Hall. The team tasks include: (i) develop safety protocols for operating the robot, (ii) install additional safety equipment, (iii) design a pneumatic gripper for robot arm to grasp objects, (iv) program the robot to pick/place objects o conveyor, and (iv) create a laboratory manual with exercises.

The mechatronic teams were assigned; the student members promptly selected a chief engineer and developed a project timeline. Some of the initial team activities included brainstorming on project concepts, creation of system diagrams to communicate key information, development of requirement documents, bill of materials, and identication of possible vendors. At this point, project reviews were held between the students and instructor. Once project approval was received, the teams analyzed, re-designed, procured, fabricated, implemented, and tested their designs. Each team wrote a comprehensive technical report will full documentation, and a laboratory manual chapter [20]. Finally, the projects were demonstrated on the last class day. The collaborative activities and communications between the two teams was continually addressed by the students and instructor. To complete the mechanical build, each team had access to the well equipped student machine shop in Cook Hall. 5.1. Conveyor system project The students successfully duplicated a 121.9 cm conveyor section (refer to Section 3.2) and designed an innovative 90 turntable with similar elements to transport parts between the two conveyors. As shown in Fig. 6a, aluminum pallets travel on the conveyor, encounter the turntable, and continue moving to the end staging area for robotic arm repositioning. For instance, the PLC was programmed to coordinate the cargo transfer from the robotic arm to the rst conveyor system, the turntable, and nally, the second conveyor. The turntables operation is pneumatically executed in a three step sequence. First, a pneumatic piston raises the table to allow the square shape to rotate the prescribed 90 degrees. Second, a smaller pneumatic cylinder rotates the turntable. Finally, the table is lowered to a level position with the adjacent conveyor sections. The reception and the delivery of the pallets to each conveyor were performed by two integrated MicroRoller elements. 5.2. Robotic arm and gripper project One of the initial tasks was the review of safety procedures and installation of safety equipment for the robotic arm. As shown in Fig. 5b, a metal enclosure limited access to the robot. A door limit switch disabled robot electrical power when open and warning lights signaled the robot arm status. The students also developed a fully documented tag/lockout procedure for work in the robots vicinity. Next, a pneumatic end gripper was designed, fabricated, and tested on the robot which allowed students to synthesize concepts from machine design, strength of materials, and manufacturing processes (refer to Fig. 6b and c). This cost eective gripper, fabricated from aluminum, uses a single pneumatic cylinder that receives compressed air supplied from the robotic arm. The gripper can grab a 17 cm by 17 cm square widget with a 50 kg mass. Finally, the robotic arm and gripper were interfaced with the con-

H. Bassily et al. / Mechatronics 17 (2007) 480488


Fig. 6. Smart material handling system: (a) servo-motor conveyor and turntable, (b) industrial robotic arm with pneumatic gripper, and (c) gripper design for 50 kg mass and 17 cm 17 cm size.

veyor system previously described for harmonious operation. Note that sensor integration represents an important on-going task for the robotic arm. 5.3. Design project accomplishments and observations At the end of the semester, the mechatronic teams demonstrated their design projects during an open-house session. The smart material handling system featured a series of aluminum pallets placed on, and removed from, the conveyor by the Staubli robotic arm. The pallets trav eled the length of the conveyor with turntable action. Overall, the students had an opportunity to work with industrial equipment, develop teaming and communication skills, and put theory into practice by designing the mechatronic material handling system. The formation of design teams, selection of chief engineers, allocation of student work assignments, and frequent student-team-instructor communications empowered the students to take ownership of the laboratory learning process. An interesting observation was that the students perseverance in resolving problems, as evident by the troubleshooting of and eventual hosting of a factory technician to repair a robot electrical problem, emulated a typical workplace scenario. Further, the students appreciated the two complex design projects which presented signicant demands but oered great opportunities for innovation. 6. Summary The educational mechatronics laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Clemson University has been created through the continuing eorts of faculty, sta, students, and industrial sponsors. Multi-disciplinary teams explore hands-on laboratory experiments to familiarize themselves with instrumentation, sensors, actuators, and real time controllers. Further, the design, fabrication, integration, and control of experimental systems, motivated from common material handling, manufacturing,

and transportation systems, can inspire students in their academic careers, oer insight into career opportunities, and prepare them to compete in a global job market that is increasingly less focused on the traditional boundaries of the engineering disciplines. Acknowledgements The authors acknowledge the equipment contributions by the Rockwell Automation Corporation of Greenville, SC, and the Sparks Belting Corporation of Fort Mill, SC, as well as the outstanding support from the Mechanical Engineering Technical Sta at Clemson University. References
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