Anyone who's ridden The London Tube has heard the admonition “Mind the Gap.” The so-called gap — the space between subway and platform — is dangerous and unknown. You can get hurt in the gap.
Well, Center for Auto Research Chairman David E. Cole offered largely the same advice when asked by his University of Michigan engineering students where they should focus their energies. What did he tell them: “Get between things. Go to the gaps where something will be big in the future.” But Cole's gap, while risky to the extent it's unknown, is a bit different than The Tube's. Engineering education traditionally focuses on a single discipline so his advice might sound like heresy. I've worked with EEs who were reluctant to venture outside their narrow niches within the vast spectrum of electrical engineering. But all that is changing.
Cole made his remarks at Ford's ground zero in Dearborn, MI, where the Design News' Mechatronics Expo held forth Sept. 9.
Ford is Dearborn. The Design News' event was at the Ford Conference and Event Center. Across the street is The Henry Ford world-class museum and Greenfield Village. We stayed in the 77-year-old Dearborn Inn, which was founded by Henry Ford. Ford buildings line Oakwood Boulevard. And just up the street in Detroit, a struggling GM was about to celebrate its 100th birthday on Sept. 16. How many companies started up in the past 10 years will exist 100 years from their foundings? None, quite possibly, but I digress.
Mechatronics speaks directly to “getting between things” or perhaps more accurately in the middle of several things. And mechatronics resonates deep within the auto industry where every conceivable type of engineering applies. Cole, a mechanical engineer and University of Michigan Engineering Associate Professor Emeritus, went so far as to predict traditional engineering disciplines could go away altogether as once revered beliefs in the auto industry are turned on their heads. Barriers and boundaries are coming down.
That's not to say different engineering disciplines carry equal weight and can be homogenized into something called mechatronics. Andrezej Pawlak, a Delphi Corp. new business development manager, followed Cole as a speaker and one of his slides showed sharp growth in electronics' patents which peaked at more than 80,000 in 2005. Mechanical patents have stagnated and remained under 5,000 a year since 1986 while controls and computer patents (which arguably could be added to the electronics total) have shown good growth. In other words, computers, electronics and control have collectively accounted for 97 percent of the patents or innovation since 1986 and mechanical a miniscule 3 percent.
Cole's gap advice clearly sympathizes with some of his new catchwords for the new auto industry business model: “empowerment, trust, teams, collaboration and anti-bureaucracy” versus the old: “control, legalistic, individual, job for life and lean.” It sounds like good versus evil, doesn't it? Oh how the free market gives us short memories.
Everyone in the Detroit area knows what the automobile companies need to do, but the gulf between that and execution often appears impossibly wide. Engineers know what to do and are quite open to being pointed in the right direction. Interestingly, the schools embracing mechatronics and sending students into “the gaps” are probably not the ones you've heard of unless you live close by. Lawrence Technological University and CSU Chico are two offering degree programs, for instance. You can bet some of the more prestigious, but not necessarily sagacious names in engineering education, will soon be expanding in the gaps.
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