What is Mechatronics?
Explanation of Mechatronics
Not long ago, a civil engineering friend came to me with a problem. His company had bought a partly-completed water works to provide a steady cash flow after the pre-2000 Olympics construction boom. All the civil works had been completed and mechanical pumping equipment was being installed. However, the water works required a control and monitoring system to be able to guarantee 24 hour, 7 day maintenance of water quality. The company had recruited an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer and a software specialist to complete the job but was ready to fire them after 6 months of anguish, delays and frustration. Each blamed the others for a succession of technical problems. I suggested he needed a mechatronic engineer: someone who could understand all the pieces of technology and integrate them to produce a working system. The traditional discplines have grown so far from each other that they can no longer work together easily.
Mechatronic engineering is based on elements of mechanical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering and computer science, but is a distinct discipline in its own right.
Mechatronic engineering accounts for around 10% of Australian engineering graduates. The word ‘mechatronics’ emerged in Japan in the 1980s as the core engineering discipline associated with robots and automation. Indeed, many mechatronic engineering students have the ambition to build robots, one day. On the way they develop special skills vital for many industries.
Many mechatronic engineers work with the electronic and computer control systems which nearly all machinery relies on for efficient and reliable operation. We take it for granted that automatic systems monitor process plants for leaks and faults, and keep the plant operating all the year round. All modern aircraft, cars and appliances rely on mechatronic engineering. Mechatronic engineers build and design these systems and need expertise in computing and electronics, core mechanical engineering knowledge, and the ability to bring these together to make working systems which meet the safety and reliability levels we take for granted.
Mechatronic engineers also have established roles in project engineering where their cross-disciplinary knowledge gives them an edge on mechanical or electrical engineers. Mechatronic engineers can work with electrical and mechanical systems together and solve problems that cross discipline boundaries. Their strength in IT, computer hardware and networking as well as software also helps them to be very versatile problem solvers.
Mechatronic engineers also learn to develop strong team skills. At several universities, including UWA, students develop team work skills through formal instruction and self-reflection during student team projects.
Many companies find it difficult to break from their traditional discipline boundaries, whether external or internal. Electrical, instrumentation, chemical and process, mechanical, civil engineering: these remain the typical “vertical” organizational supports for engineering companies. Yet at the same time companies have been pressuring universities to produce engineers with the ability to work across discipline boundaries, to escape the “silo mentality”. Mechatronic engineering is both a discipline in its own right, closely aligned with control and instrumentation, but at the same time graduates have the ability to work across the traditional discipline boundaries.
Some ‘traditional’ engineers still argue that a mechatronic engineer is one third a mechanical engineer, one third an electrical engineer and one third programmer and can’t do any of them. The reality is quite different. Our own research shows that nearly all the technical knowledge and nearly all working roles in engineering have to be learned after completing an engineering qualification at university or college. Mechatronic engineers start with different but highly useful foundation backgrounds and have been well received in every industry across Australia. Indeed, it is worth remembering that most mechatronic engineering courses (including my own at UWA) resulted from industry pressure for more adaptable multi-disciplinary engineers.
Definition of Mechatronics
Leading mechatronic engineering academics across Australia have agreed on the following more formal definition for future revisions of the Engineers Australia competency standards:
- Mechatronic Engineering is the engineering discipline concerned with the research, design, implementation and maintenance of intelligent engineered products and processes enabled by the integration of mechanical, electronic, computer, and software engineering technologies. Specific expertise areas can include:
- Artificial Intelligence Techniques
- Avionics Computer Hardware and Systems Control Systems
- Data Communications and Networks
- Dynamics of Machines and Mechanisms
- Electromagnetic Energy Conversion
- Embedded & Real-time Systems
- Fluid Power and other Actuation Devices
- Human-Machine Interface Engineering and Ergonomics
- Industrial Automation
- Measurement, Instrumentation and Sensors
- Mechanical Design and Material Selection
- Mechatronic Design and System Integration
- Modelling and Simulation
- Motion Control
- Power Electronics
- Process Management, Scheduling, Optimization, and Control
- Process Plant and Manufacturing Systems
- Signal Processing
- Smart Infrastructure
- Software Engineering
- Systems Engineering
Other areas of specific expertise relevant to the practice of Mechatronic Engineering are found within the disciplines of Aeronautical, Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Communication Engineering, Computer System Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Electrical Power Engineering, Electronic Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Instrumentation and Control Engineering, Manufacturing and Production Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Software Engineering and Space Engineering.
There are still relatively few job vacancies labelled "mechatronic engineer". There are still not many mechatronic engineers in senior positions, so most employers would not want to restrict the field of applicants by calling for a mechatronic engineer. mechatronic engineering positions are often advertised as:
- Asset Management engineer
- Automation engineer
- Data Logging engineer
- Electrical/Electronic engineer
- Electro mechanical engineer
- Instrumentation engineer
- Maintenance engineer
- Mechanical engineer
- Plant engineer
- Process engineer
- Process monitoring and plant systems engineer
- Project engineer
- Software engineer
- Systems engineer
Mechatronic engineering is a formally accredited branch of engineering in Australia, Japan, France, the Netherlands and Germany and several other countries. However this is not the case in the USA and Britain where competing professional engineering organizations cannot agree on who should provide accreditation. Mechatronic engineers in these countries tend to emerge from post-graduate masters programs after a first degree in mechanical or electrical engineering.
It is interesting to observe how well motor vehicle manufacturing industry performance seems to be correlated with availability of mechatronic engineering graduates. Mechatronic engineering is essential in modern vehicles from the remote door lock to engine and fuel control and monitoring, active braking, steering and suspension controls.
Examples of Mechatronic Engineering
Mechatronic greenhouse - growing tomatoes
Lufa Farms - another application of mechatronics, growing vegetables in the city