The Aberdeen Group’s January 2008 benchmark report titled “System Design: New Product Development for Mechatronics” cites that the top challenge for companies’ mechatronic product development is the “difficulty finding and hiring experience system engineers / lack of cross-functional knowledge.” Do we need more systems engineers? Do more engineering schools need to offer mechatronics degrees?
The report states that systems engineering degrees are not widespread and therefore there are few systems engineers available. The report continues to say that systems engineers often obtain their knowledge through years of experience. This is where I begin to disagree.
First, experience in any field is undoubtedly invaluable, but experience does not equate to systems engineering expertise. For example, trying to pick up computer architecture while working in a company as a mechanical engineer would likely mean you weren’t actually doing your job and you may lose your job. I believe the best place to develop inter-disciplinary knowledge is in an academic environment where mistakes are not costly to a company, but rather a positive part of learning. A systems degree must attempt to wrap together a mechanical, electrical and design degree all into one — not an easy undertaking. Undergraduate systems degrees are not commonplace, and judging by various systems engineering curricula, nor are they in-depth in many engineering areas.*
Looking to graduate study, MIT’s Engineering Systems Division (ESD) offers Masters and Ph.D programs in engineering systems. Graduate students enrolled in ESD “model and predict the behavior of technologically-enabled complex systems in order to help the engineering profession address contemporary critical issues and better serve humankind.” This ties directly into Aberdeen’s report that describes how simulations identify problems earlier in the design process and get better products out the door faster.
I think undergraduate schools should have mechatronics and systems engineering programs, but students should likely be informed that they may have trouble fitting into the persistent labels of mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, aerospace, or even software or computer engineering. These branches of engineering, that dominate the engineering profession, make it difficult for members of a team to coordinate each others’ decisions and design a truly integrated product, because of the lack of cross-training in other areas of engineering (e.g. a software programmer may not know how a microcontroller works on a low-level, but should certainly know a microcontroller’s general architecture, limitations and the impact of software decisions on the system).
More integrated degree programs, such as systems engineering and mechatronics, may be a solution to helping coordinate engineering practices, but possibly a simple improvement in communication would solve many problems of mechatronic product design. More on this in a future post.
*Here I purposely avoided identifying institutions with undergraduate systems engineering degree programs, as I do not mean to critique a specific program.