I am convinced there’s as many definitions of mechatronics as there are practitioners of the design philosophy underpinning this buzzword. It’s a “multi-disciplinary” approach to design. It’s “intelligent systems design.” It gives equal weight to control, software development and electrical and mechanical engineering throughout the design phase of a product if not its entire life cycle.
The one I liked among so many that popped up at Design News’ day long Mechatronics Expo this week came from Ed Nicolson, development director at Yaskawa Electric America. Mechatronics, he said, is about controlling motion. I thought hard about that. The `mech’ in mechatronics really means motion. Maybe we should call `motionatronics?’ Interestingly, Nicolson’s talk was not about motion at all. Rather, he focused on networks that control industrial automation whose end product is motion. Therein lied his point: what controls and enables the desired motion are electronics, software and control.
Motion is what Design News is all about. We cover electronics from the standpoint of motion. We cover materials from a motion perspective although there’s many more considerations to materials than motion, of course. But the engineering of motion is the core concept of our coverage.
Nicolson and about a dozen of others spoke at our second Mechatronics Expo, this time in Santa Clara, Calif. which is ground zero in Silicon Valley. If you need proof, Yahoo, WebEx, McAfee, Intel and Cisco are within spitting distance of the Santa Clara Convention Center where our event was housed. I was privileged to serve as master of ceremonies where 150 engineers came to learn about how mechatronics can help them in myriad projects.
The day also confirmed something I‘ve known all along: even if mechatronics did not exist in name, engineers would be practicing it anyway. In other words, mechatronics is a catch-all buzzword to describe multi-disciplinary engineering projects involving motion. A colleague calls it total systems design.
Another interesting presentation came from mechanical engineering Prof. Tai-ran Hsu from San Jose State University. He did a great job juxta-positioning nanotechnology, micro-mechatronics and full size mechatronics. And he identified markets we do not typically associate with mechatronics – healthcare and medical diagnostics. His slide of a tiny gear that fit on an ant whisker drove home his point – mechatronics will be huge in sub-micron environments.
Keynoter Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the SMU engineering school, inspired the assembled by making a case for his twin passions: solving social problems through engineering and engineering education. Geoffrey, a very inspirational speaker, grabbed the audience with his causes. His slides of sprawling and ever-expanding slums next to remarkable wealth in India were striking. Taken a bit further, it’s been called the double bottom line.
In other words, companies and engineers have a fiscal AND social responsibility in everything do.
We heard from several design tool companies that provided hands-on tutorials about how mechatronics is being implemented in their products. And a contingent from California State at Chico explained how only accredited undergraduate mechatronics program in the country is structured. Supposedly, Georgia Tech is about to launch one.
The most dramatic event of the day came from Stanford Ph.D candidate Gabe Hoffman who’s been very involved with the Stanley and Junior autonomous vehicles featured on Nova covering Darpa’s Grand Challenge. His demo of his autonomous “quad copter” at lunch had danger written all over it (see video). Would this one kilogram phenom crash into diners as they dipped into their pudding? Alas, the demo went smoothly although the quad copter stayed safely away from head tops.
Alas, it was great day. And stayed tuned. Our next Mechatronics Expo will focus on automotive and will be in Detroit in September. And we’ll have audio webcasts from Santa Clara up shortly.