Used in everything from anti-lock brakes and smart phones to robotic systems and biomedical devices, the field of mechatronics integrates mechanical, electrical, control and computer systems. The resulting products, machinery and systems demonstrate improved quality, performance and efficiency thanks to model-based design and collaboration among engineers.

The concept of mechatronics is not new. Tetsuro Mori, an engineer with Yaskawa Electric Corp., coined the term (a hybrid of “mechanical" and “electronics") in the early 1970s. What has changed, however, is how manufacturers approach mechatronics. Some recognize the need for engineers who can handle the interdisciplinary requirements of today's increasingly complex systems. Still, others make products rooted in mechatronics, even as their engineers continue to work in silos labeled according to their specialty or discipline.

“Often there is little communication among the different engineers responsible for each component," says Kevin Craig, professor of mechanical engineering and a mechatronics specialist at Hofstra University's School of Engineering & Applied Science. “They really don't have shared expertise."

Steve Waslander, mechanical and mechatronics professor, with a quad rotor helicopter. Image source: University of Waterloo.Steve Waslander, mechanical and mechatronics professor, with a quad rotor helicopter. Image source: University of Waterloo. That is because engineers' college education “isn't interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, integrated or systems focused," Craig says. This leaves the industry with two options: persuade universities to dedicate more resources to mechatronics education or develop their engineers in-house.

Adding a mechatronics concentration to an engineering program, let alone a Bachelor of Science degree or higher, presents a nearly insurmountable challenge. "I've heard it said, 'To change the curriculum at a university is like trying to move a cemetery,'" Craig says. “Universities are hopeless in that regard."

Economics represent one of the biggest hurdles, since setting up a new department requires hiring a department head and tenured faculty. Other issues include how the program is accredited, how it will attract enough student applicants and how involved the industry will be.

Removing Headstones

Some U.S. universities recognize that while they may not be able to move the graveyard, they can start by removing some of the headstones. For instance, California State University, Chico, and Southern Polytechnic State University in Georgia both offer Bachelor of Science degrees in mechatronics engineering. Master's degrees are available through institutions that include Lawrence Technological University and Oakland University.

Adding a mechatronics concentration to an engineering program can be a challenge. Image source: a mechatronics concentration to an engineering program can be a challenge. Image source: Although the industry may have difficulties influencing universities to make changes, some colleges do listen. Such was the case with the University of North Carolina (UNC) Asheville and North Carolina (NC) State University joint Bachelor of Science degree in engineering, which offers a concentration in mechatronics. The concentration launched in 1998 after the then-program director surveyed local companies, which identified the need for high-tech engineers to be able to design intelligent products and systems that combine mechanical, electrical, computer and control elements.

The mechatronics curriculum combines coursework with hands-on experience. NC State University engineering faculty teaches the students, who are seated in high-tech distance classrooms equipped with distance education capabilities. For some courses, students are responsible for watching prerecorded lectures before enteringinto the classroom where faculty guides them to work in teams to solve problems.

The mechatronics concentration also requires more training in computer programming than in mechanical or electronics engineering alone, based on conversations with the industry and reviewing other mechatronics programs at universities across the U.S., says Steve Walsh, director of the joint engineering program.

Students take the theory they have learned in class and apply it in extracurricular activities. These extracurricular include the IEEE Robotics Competition and designing an electric car for Formula–I[NN1] SAE, a student competition organized by SAE International (formerly Society of Automotive Engineers).

Graduates of the UNC Asheville/NC State University mechatronics program are in high demand; they often are placed in project management positions “because they can translate between mechanical, electrical, computer and control theory," Walsh says. “These kids are just as comfortable in a machine shop as they are programming a microprocessor."

Adding to the appeal for companies is UNC students' liberal arts education, which seeks to equip engineering graduates with communication skills. “A lot of them end up in roles where they have a significant customer interface as part of their responsibility," Walsh says.

Just as the industry reaches out to academia, universities bring attention to companies about the importance of mechatronics-capable engineers as well. Both Walsh and Hofstra's Craig have worked with businesses to help educate them on, and in some instances established mechatronics programs.

Mechatronics Training in the Workplace

Despite some development in universities, the responsibility for mechatronics education often lies with manufacturers who, like colleges, sometimes struggle to change their culture. Compounding the problem is that companies do not give engineers enough time to test, refine and validate their ideas through software simulations, according to Craig.

Mechatronics lab at Keilir Institute of Technology. Image source: KIT.Mechatronics lab at Keilir Institute of Technology. Image source: KIT. “In most companies, the sign of progress is delivering hardware or products, even if they don't understand what they are building or know how to fix it if it fails," Craig says. “But if they take the road of modeling, analysis and simulation, it has been proven over and over again that they will arrive at a much better solution and much faster."

Rockwell Automation has been realizing such benefits with its proprietary Motion Analyzer software. For the past two decades, the company has used the tool in modeling mechanical systems and in designing motion profiles of machines. Based on the model of the mechanical system and motion profile design, Motion Analyzer identifies the possible combinations of motor, drives and gearboxes that can properly power the system.

Although mechanical and control system modeling and motion profile design are required steps in the mechatronic design process for industrial machines, gaps in engineering education may become apparent, says Aderiano da Silva, senior commercial project engineer with Rockwell Automation.

For example, mechanical engineering programs cover mechanical system modeling “but not necessarily to the complexity level of industrial systems," da Silva says. The same goes for control systems, as more advanced control techniques used in industrial servo drives are only part of graduate school programs. Control system tuning techniques applicable for industrial machines, which comprise a major step for machines to achieve good performance, generally are not included in engineering programs, da Silva says.

Perhaps the topic most overlooked by engineering programs is motion profile design, according to da Silva. As a critical component in a mechatronic design process, motion profile design enables machines to achieve a high performance level and reduce vibration, mechanical and electrical noise, and stress in mechanical components, motors and drives.

Rockwell provides several opportunities for new engineering graduates to expand their knowledge base. Continuous training is available via internal and external webinars and technical sessions. Volunteer mentors also guide young engineers in their careers to gain further education if both parties agree it is necessary.

However, as da Silva says, engineers need to be self-motivated and alert to technology evolution so they can “identify their own gaps in skills and knowledge and pursue training and/or formal education to advance in their careers, fulfill job duties and contribute to innovation in the company."

Mechatronics on the Plant Floor

As engineers apply mechatronics principles to the machines they design, the people responsible for the equipment's operation need to know how to maintain them.

PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, has established online mechatronics certificate tests to assess the skills of such personnel. The tests cover competencies such as fluid power, industrial electricity, mechanical components and motors and motor controls. Working with the U.S. Department of Labor, PMMI has established apprenticeship guidelines for mechatronics technicians that employers can use to develop apprenticeships as well as internships.

“The certificate program assures employers that their workers have attained a certain level of skills that allows them to perform the job," particularly as consumer package manufacturers face staff shortages through labor cuts and retirement of experienced technicians, says Maria Ferrante, vice president of education and workforce development at PMMI.

Future tests will delve into higher-level skills such as motion control and principles of machine design, she says.

Siemens Energy is working to grow its own engineering talent at its North Carolina turbine facility. Image source: SiemensSiemens Energy is working to grow its own engineering talent at its North Carolina turbine facility. Image source: Siemens Meanwhile, at the Siemens Energy plant in Charlotte, N.C., 18 students are participating in a four-year apprentice program comprising of a two-year associate applied science degree in mechatronics from a local community college and 6,400 hours of on-the-job training across the plant's generator, gas turbine and steam turbine product lines. Upon completing the apprenticeship, students will have earned their journeyman certification as a mechatronics technician.

“Our strategy was to grow our own talent as we were having difficulty finding skilled labor for certain trades," says Dawn Braswell, training manager at Siemens Energy.

The program's curriculum includes circuit analysis, advanced motor controls, introduction to engineering and several math classes. The students also study 3D CAD software such as Solidworks and Creo Parametric while learning on lathe/milling machines, floor-type horizontal boring mills and other production equipment.

Mixed Forecast

More manufacturers are recognizing the value of a collaborative, interdisciplinary mechatronics approach in their product and machine design. One challenge that remains is how to find, or even develop, the right engineers for the journey.

“With the help of industry, universities need to understand the kind of problem solvers engineering students need to become once they graduate," Hofstra's Craig says.

But with the reluctance from universities to develop dedicated mechatronics programs or degrees, alternative options may surface. Craig foresees a time when certificates and other types of competency programs will substitute for traditional degrees.

“Companies want to know who you are, how you solve a problem and how you work with other engineers," Craig says. “We're getting to a point where if students can demonstrate all that, they will be valued at that company, no matter where they received their education."

Those colleges that have committed to mechatronics program see no shortage of interest among students. In the UNC Asheville/NC State University program, the freshman class used to have about 30 students; over the past few years, the count has grown to more than 120.

“The students are fascinated with being able to build something that moves, that they can control, and that it represents a career opportunity," Walsh says.

And that may spell good news for a range of industries that integrate mechanical, electrical, computer and control components for high-performing products and systems that are aimed at improving how we live.