When mechanical engineer Colby Buckman works on electrical components, his fellow ME colleagues at Ford Motor Co. razz him about it.
“It's a joke — kind of like I'm leaving their club,” he says.
Buckman, 32, works in power train control systems at Ford and has been working in mechanical engineering since earning his bachelor's degree eight years ago. But as his job has become increasingly more integrated, he's found himself working on more electrical and computer software components.
“There really aren't too many ME (mechanical engineering) things that aren't tied to electric these days — everything is microprocessor-controlled and embedded systems,” he says.
While this blend of electromechanical and computer engineering intrigues Buckman on a personal level, he also knows learning and using this system discipline, known as mechatronics, will allow him to become a more comprehensive engineer. And in an industry that is in peril, he also knows this will make him a valuable employee to keep.
That's why after a day on the job Buckman hits the books, earning his master's degree in Mechatronics Engineering from Lawrence Technical University in Southfield, MI, a suburb of Detroit.
“Mechatronics will further my expertise,” says Buckman. “It opens up a lot of new avenues for me professionally.”
With the help of an advisory board comprised of engineers from GM, Ford, Daimler AG, Bosch, dSPACE, KUKA Robotics, Siemens, The MathWorks, National Instruments, Eaton, Toyota, Johnson Controls and RDECOM, the U.S. Army's Research Development and Engineering Command, Vladimir V. Vantsevich launched the two-year, graduate-level program in mechatronics in the fall of 2006. The program is designed to teach already working engineers (no classes begin until 5:45 p.m.) mechatronics and how the approach can help them better design products. The first class will graduate this fall.
The program has two tracks. One is mechatronics systems for ground vehicles and the other is a concentration in industrial robotics. The half-million-dollar lab is outfitted in equipment and software from the industry for real-world application.
In his classes Vantsevich, a professor and director of the program and associate director of the school's Automotive Engineering Institute, says he has two students older than himself.
“Some students are 50, 55, 60 years old,” he says. “Why do they come? Because they don't want to be laid off. They can do their job better and they become competitive engineers if they have a mechatronics background.”
Vantsevich says hiring managers with a mechatronics background is like killing two birds with one stone.
“If you hire a mechatronic engineer you buy one and you get one free,” he says.
John Wilson, a National Instruments area sales manager in Michigan for the past nine years, says the real way for the auto industry to become healthy again is through mechatronics.
“Still with the recent downsizes, I see a continued strong demand for engineers with mechatronic skills,” he says. “Mechatronics is an area that has been almost untouched and mechatronics engineers have been untouched.”
For those who are mechanically focused, those jobs will see pressure, Wilson says. “One way to preserve and protect their jobs is mechatronics — it's a rare exception that an employee has mechanical and electrical skills,” he says.
“Mechatronics is most applied in safety, smart controls and power train development,” Vantsevich says.
Wilson expects the number of mechatronic engineering jobs to increase over the next few years. “We're not back yet, but we're on our way,” he says.
This month Macomb Community College is debuting an entirely new type of technician's program in which students learn how to operate and repair industrial robotics, requiring skills in electrical, mechanical and embedded systems.
Scan the want ads for engineers in Detroit and you'll find suppliers and manufacturers who are seeking engineers with mechatronics degrees, skills and experiences. Ford, GM and Chrysler are seeking those with mechatronics experience, mostly to work in research and development or on hybrid vehicles.
For years, the American automotive industry has been slowly crumbling, but recently, with an unstable economy and skyrocketing gasoline prices, the ground is even shakier — for company executives and for engineers like Buckman.
It's not a surprise for anyone looking at the facts. In July, Ford Motor Co. posted an $8.7 billion loss in its second quarter — its largest quarterly loss in its 105 years. Rival General Motors Corp. reported a $15.5 billion loss, the third biggest in its 100-year history and Chrysler LLC reported a $515 million loss for its first quarter.
Moreover, global competition is at an all-time high and in the past year consumers have — almost overnight — chosen more fuel-efficient cars over SUVs, sending automakers, manufacturers and distributors scrambling to design and produce greener, more electric and robotic cars that are like no other mass-produced models to date. Already strapped for cash, all automakers in Detroit are restructuring staff, divesting brands, closing plants and reducing workforces.
What will save the Motor City is anyone's guess. But according to some in Detroit, mechatronics, a quiet evolution rising from the rubble, just might help redesign the industry and cars.
Mechatronics is a discipline, practice and approach to engineering that incorporates mechanical, electrical and software engineering. It is slowly garnering more attention, momentum and practitioners. It not only reduces costs, but helps design more efficient vehicles by using a systems approach to an engineering problem.
You've got to look hard, but the use and interest in mechatronics is popping up all over Detroit.
The three major automakers in Detroit are tight-lipped about releasing information on much these days and there is no exception when it comes to mechatronics.
“The automotive industry needs to change its perspective of how they look at the car — it's not mechanical or electrical mechanical anymore, it's a mechatronics system,” says Vantsevich.
“I don't know what will happen to tomorrow's car — how to catch up with the best vehicles in the world — we need to teach engineers mechatronics,” says Vantsevich, whose ongoing research is in all-wheel-drive ground vehicle dynamics, performance optimization and control and ground vehicle driveline systems.
Vantsevich is watching this movement closely in Detroit and, as the creator of Lawrence Tech's Mechatronics Engineering master's program, is a strong proponent of mechatronics.
Vantsevich believes Europe and Japan understood the benefits — the reduced cost of mechatronic design — much earlier than the U.S. The term was coined in Japan in 1969 and has been practiced extensively in Asia, Europe and Australia since.
Many engineers in the U.S. are familiar with electromechanical design, but there is a big difference between electromechanical and mechatronics and integration and implementation, he says.
“From my point of view integration is not good,” Vantsevich says. “You don't need to push mechanical and electrical together. You need to logically design and implement a new type of system — a mechatronic system. With mechatronics systems engineering, we will design better cars.”
“The industry understands the necessity of all this — it would be impossible without the industry support,” says Vantsevich, a native of Russia who is an ASME fellow. Before coming to the states he was a professor at the Russian Belarusian State Polytechnic Academy where he specialized in designing driveline systems and control devices.