25 Jun 2021 17:44 IST

How mechatronics helps build modern automation through synergy

Mechatronic engineers are the bridge between mechanical, electrical engineering and computer science

Education in engineering and technology is one of the most sought-after choices after high school. Just like in every other case, the abundant choices offered for programmes in engineering universities need to be carefully handled with a clear rationale.

What if there is a programme that will allow sampling of most of the major streams of engineering and technology? Enter Mechatronics. One of the most popularly accepted definitions of Mechatronics is a field of study involving a synergistic combination of mechanical, electrical, electronics, computer sub-systems integrated through software. This might make someone ask, "Does mechatronics just borrow everything from other fields?" Yes, it does.

The next immediate question that might arise is, "Does Mechatronics not have an individuality?" No, it has its own identity and special traits which many classical core engineering fields may not offer. Mating the sub-systems from different disciplines is a specialisation that requires the understanding of specifications affecting the compatibility of one system with other. System integration may be observed in two stages, namely in the design stage and at functional integration through software.

Why Mechatronics?

Look at any systems which are around us, may be from a washing machine at home to industrial CNC machines. There are no more systems that are engineered with a single discipline knowledge and skills. Fundamentally everything around us is computer controlled through a complex integration of mechanical, electrical, and electronic sub-systems. This brought in a special requirement for engineers who were required to cross boundaries of core engineering branches.

In the initial days, back in the 1970s, when industrial automation was carried out with electrical and electronics-based control, this requirement was raised. System integration requires special skills of being able to understand the specifications of the various sub-systems. The specifications are the means for ensuring compatibility to realise the functional purpose of the automata.

The TOP View Advantage

As any engineering starts with design, building a complex multi-disciplinary system requires a concurrent approach rather than the traditional sequential sub-system. In today’s practices, the model-based design is the best example of a concurrent design approach. Such a concurrent design approach needs the complete system to be visualised from the top rather than one subsystem by another as in the case of sequential design. Education in mechatronics gives the advantage of looking at real-world engineered systems from the top, understanding the hand-shakes between their sub-systems, and controlling them resulting in an improved quality product. A top view of the complete system has merits of early detection of flaws, less requirement for revisiting, faster product development among the various benefits.

The many manifestations of mechatronics engineers

Today’s mechatronics engineers use their knowledge and skills gained through their structured curriculum not only for system integration but also manifest in multiple possibilities. Today’s mechatronics engineer is not only a system integrator but has been observed to take other roles such as control engineer, design engineer, software engineer, hardware engineer, user experience designer, data scientist, machine learning engineer, algorithms engineer, among others. This is thoroughly aided by the interdisciplinary curriculum of Mechatronics engineering programmes.

What do Mechatronics engineers do daily?

As an aspiring student one might wonder ‘what does a mechatronics engineer do daily?’ Mechatronics engineers are very popular for the role of system integration. System integration in itself consists of multiple sub-tasks. Mechatronics engineers do a lot of research to develop modern automata to understand the current state-of-the-art and improve on top of it. Apart from the design level integration which is more of a selection process for the mechatronics engineer, the functional integration requires coding which in turn requires experimentation and understanding of underlying math. All these are part and parcel of an ideal mechatronics engineer’s daily routine.

Mechatronics vs Robotics

One of the popular questions among students is ‘What is the difference between Mechatronics and Robotics?’ Mechatronics is a field that emerged in industries from a need, unlike Robotics which emerged from fictions portraying a man-made slave that shall obey human commands. Robotics enjoyed pretty much a fascination-triggered evolution which made scientists wonder what if we could have something like a human arm to perform manipulation tasks; what if they could have legs to perform locomotion; what if we could have artificial intelligence to the level of natural intelligence of humans if not to surpass them. Mechatronics did not have any such fictitious idea behind its development. One possible way to look at the two fields is that Robots shall be considered as one class of Mechatronics systems since they have every constituent element of a Mechatronics system, although the technical literature in robotics is far more mature compared to mechatronics.

The mechatronics mindset

Successful mechatronics engineers develop a certain mindset which is unique. Mechatronics engineers are active learners. They prefer interactive learning strategies such as computer simulation supplements, project-based learning, more than classroom-style lectures. Mechatronics engineers are doers. They would want to do anything practically and see it working for themselves to believe or understand a concept. Mechatronics engineers know a little bit about everything. They are the bridge between mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science. One special trait of mechatronics engineers is their ability to visualise a system in an exploded view just by observing the functioning of the system, including the stages of the software routines. All these attributes are gained through an interdisciplinary curriculum.

Today’s emphasis in engineering education is the need for a multi-disciplinary perspective and mechatronics is a pioneering example for not just a multi-disciplinary but inter-disciplinary perspective. Engineers with mechatronics education are expected to play a significant part in developing next-generation automation-involved products offering a multitude of levels of value and quality improvement all aided by the key idea of synergy.

 

 

 

(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Mechatronics, SRM Institute of Science and Technology.)