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16 Oct 2018, 15:16

Mechatronics a multi-disciplined approach to engineering

Mechatronic engineers are the solution providers

A quick web search will tell you that mechatronics is a blend of mechanical, electrical and control engineering, and for fairly apparent reasons is often used in reference to robotics and industrial engineering. That may be the academic definition but for people, it’s probably a little different; it’s acquiring and exercising the skills needed to get the job done. We don’t need to analyse a typical mechatronic project too closely to see that it probably contains all three of these elements. In this context, mechatronics is about focusing on the application, whether that is robotic in nature or something entirely different.

Getting your hands dirty is what engineering is all about, so why should that stop at the circuit board? The truth is, it doesn’t. Even the most dedicated electronics engineer feels rewarded when something goes clunk or whirr when it’s supposed to. Mechanical engineers use CAD to design and model systems long before they’re manufactured, and software is at the heart of all of this. There are even a few notable efforts that aim to bring all three of these design domains together into one single environment.

Over the last century control systems have evolved from being purely mechanical to largely electrical. In fact, it’s hard to see why control systems would exist at all without the presence of a mechanical or electrical element. Governors were conceived to implement proportional control in steam engines using simple mechanical rotation; today, ECUs are used to manage every aspect of an internal combustion engine. It's clear that developing control systems has always required an understanding of mechanical engineering; more recently that has expanded to include electrical engineering. As time goes by, the electrical and mechanical domains have become increasingly interdependent. This only emphasises why it is now more relevant than ever to have a multi-disciplinary approach to engineering.

Just as the governor was eventually replaced by more complex systems that could apply proportional control in a more reliable and reproducible way, control systems themselves have changed from being entirely physical to largely intangible. Algorithms running on powerful processing engines have replaced carefully weighted pieces of spinning metal. Software now provides the control in almost all systems and it’s been years since engineering could be defined simply by the things we can see and touch. Coding changed engineering and mechatronics is redefining it once more.

Because software can’t open a valve or detect the pressure in a fuel pipe without some help, it depends heavily on interfaces to the world that only physical devices can provide. Its eyes, ears and hands are sensors, actuators, motors and other forms of transducers. These need to be carefully integrated into the overall system and this is what system engineering is all about today. It is aptly defined by the term mechatronics.

Who are mechatronic engineers?

It’s not hard to appreciate why makers and system integrators could be renamed, mechatronic engineers. They don’t see boundaries when it comes to creating a system that can open or close a door at the touch of a smartphone touchscreen. Many won’t even see the difference between the disciplines involved, but industry can and it likes what it sees. Demand for mechatronic engineers is growing because they are in essence solution builders.

The need for highly skilled practitioners of advanced electrical and mechanical design isn’t going away, but the demand for engineers who can take what these domain experts produce and readily apply it to real-world problems is only increasing. This ‘can do’ attitude has been bolstered over recent times by a greater availability of configurable solutions, supporting a hands-on approach to results-driven engineering.

Engineering at its finest

It isn’t just employers who appreciate the benefits of merging disciplines; the industry at large is making it easier to bring together all elements of engineering in a faster and more productive way. Low-cost computing projects like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino have joined a raft of single-board computers that are aimed squarely at mechatronic applications; the semiconductor industry has been moving in this general direction for many years, by producing board support packages, reference designs and other forms of platforms that are intended to help engineers create solutions without having to master the details. This is perhaps most apparent and applicable in motor control, which can be challenging if approached from a blank sheet of paper but made much simpler by adopting a pre-validated motor control platform from a microcontroller supplier.

By bringing together different disciplines into a single design team, engineers with complementary skill sets will be able to work together. Each will have an appreciation for the others’ talents and, to some degree, be able to assist them in the design process.

The IoT is a driver

The reason mechatronics is seeing renewed interest (it was a phrase first coined almost 50 years ago, after all), is because of the IoT. The Internet of Things is really all about the Internet of Data, because data – or information, in its most general form – drives the world today. Automation is enabled entirely by control systems that operate on data. In a steam engine the ‘data’ was the load on the engine; the greater the load the harder the engine needed to work, controlled by the governor. Increasingly the data that drives this process is coming from further afield, it is no longer simply the load on the engine, it is the stock on the shelves, the cars on the roads, even the sun in the sky. Mechatronics enables data to be gathered and acted upon; it describes the entire closed loop system.

Schools, colleges and universities now acknowledge how important a multi-disciplinary approach to learning has become, as academia increasingly adopts syllabuses that include complementary skills. Degree courses in mechatronics are now more numerous, and schools in the UK are rolling out T-Levels; academically equivalent to an A-Level but much more focused on design and technology.

The rise of the mechatronics engineer is here and it is likely to stay. This brings huge opportunities for anyone with even a slight interest in engineering because it means they don’t need to spend years mastering a single domain, instead they can apply their particular skills to become proficient in many.

Favourite things are Family, Music and Judo. Also, I have the ability to retain and quote useless facts, something that pleases me but can annoy others. My engineering hero - Isambard Kingdom Brunel

16 Oct 2018, 15:16

Comments

November 29, 2018 09:03

Well, personally I do not think that IioT or IoT preserves the mechanics from extintion. There are many other installations, like DSLRs and so on that are not exactly IoT devices by themselves. Mechatronics is here to stay even if IoT eventually and miraculously will not. IMHO electronics saved the stone-age mechanics and it is here to stay regardless of IoT.

0 Votes

November 29, 2018 11:19

Well, personally I do not think that IioT or IoT preserves the mechanics from extintion. There are many other installations, like DSLRs and so on that are not exactly IoT devices by themselves. Mechatronics is here to stay even if IoT eventually and miraculously will not. IMHO electronics saved the stone-age mechanics and it is here to stay regardless of IoT.

0 Votes