What is Mechatronics?
Mechatronic Engineering is concerned with the design of automated machines. It is based on a combination of mechanical, electronics and software engineering, but is a distinctly different discipline to all three.
Mechatronics engineering differs from automation engineering in that its practitioners have a deep understanding of the performance analysis and design of complex machines. It differs from mechanical engineering in that its practitioners understand how automations can be designed and integrated into a machine very effectively to achieve an outcome.
A mechatronics engineer is capable of thinking holistically about a mechatronic system, rather than focussing on certain domain specific elements such as the mechanical system or the software. An understanding of how to model a system from a power perspective (rather than thinking in terms of voltages or forces) is fundamental to this.
Many mechatronic engineers work with the electronic instrumentation 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-year round.
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 roles in project engineering, reliability engineering and power 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. Writing and testing software for specialised computer systems and micro-controllers forms a major part of the work of many mechatronic engineers.
Like all engineers, technical collaboration takes most of a mechatronic engineer’s working time. Mechatronic engineering, by its nature, involves extensive collaboration with people working in more traditional engineering disciplines.
Skills such as teaching, persuasion and negotiation in a technical context are valuable for mechatronic engineers. Technical coordination and gaining the willing and conscientious collaboration of other people without organisational authority is especially valuable.
Leading mechatronic engineering academics across Australia 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 include:
- Artificial Intelligence Techniques
- 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
At the most fundamental level lies the ability to design, model and test 'simple' mechatronic systems comprising mechanical and electrical components connected to a single microcontroller or PLC. An example is a DC motor connected to a gearbox driving a load mass with sensors to enable feedback control of position and speed.
Mechatronics engineers are trained to have insight into how larger scale systems may be constructed, though application of these fundamental skills. For example, they are able to design more complex systems by networking microcontrollers together to achieve distributed control over a larger mechatronic system
Structured systematic design techniques are also important, together with conversation skills to jointly develop solutions with clients in terms of mechatronic engineering possibilities. Knowing how to conduct rigorous systematic testing is also critically important.
Other areas of specific expertise relevant to the practice of Mechatronic engineering are found within the disciplines of Aeronautical, Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Communications Engineering, Computer Systems 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 fewer job vacancies labelled “mechatronic engineer” than for other disciplines. There are still not many experienced mechatronic engineers available, so most employers would not want to restrict the field of applicants by calling only 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
- 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, Germany and several other countries.
However in the USA and Britain competing professional engineering organisations took a decade or more to agree on who should provide accreditation and relatively few courses have been accredited so far. Mechatronic engineers in these countries tend to emerge from post-graduate masters programs after a first degree in mechanical or electrical engineering.