A Crossroads for Mechatronics at ASME Technical Conference

November 5, 2007

8 Min Read
A Crossroads for Mechatronics at ASME Technical Conference

They came from all over the world — professors, graduate students and practicing engineers from companies and research labs — all of them looking for road signs to the future of mechanical technology.

What the 1,300 attendees found in the hundreds of technical papers delivered and discussed at the 2007 ASME International Technical Conference held Sept. 4-7 was a heavy emphasis on the convergence of engineering technology in fields ranging from robotics to smart structures to medical systems.

The conference also featured a special track of papers, jointly sponsored by ASME and IEEE, devoted to mechatronic and embedded systems applications (MESA). This was the third such MESA event. Last year’s conference, held in Beijing, drew more than 150 papers, with 89 accepted for presentation, according to Harry Cheng, the University of California-Davis mechanical engineering professor who chaired the MESA session.

“The collaboration between IEEE and ASME allows us to draw participation from a much broader range of researchers, both in industry and academia,” said Professor Cheng. “This is essential because mechatronics is such a multidisciplinary field.”

Prime Proving Ground

Many of the keynote sessions and research reports dealt with the design and control of robotics systems. Among the far-ranging projects discussed:

  • “Image-guided Robotics: From Cancer Treatment to Hair Transplantation” (Mohan Budduluri, Restoration Robotics)

  • “Load-Effective Dynamic Planning for Redundant Manipulators” (Joo Kim, University of Iowa)

  • “Spring Mass Jumping of Underactuated Biped Robots” (Seyed Hossein Tamaddoni, Iran’s Shariff University of Technology)

  • “Robustness and  Controllability Analysis for Autonomous Navigation of Two-Wheeled Mobile Robots” (Jorge Angeles, Canada’s McGill University)

The ASME’s conference’s technical chair, Professor Nader Jalili of Clemson University, noted that much of this new robotic research centers on “soft robotics,” lighter and more flexible designs than traditional industrial models. Many such designs also have their roots in biology, such as an “elephant trunk” robotic arm with 32 degrees of freedom (see video clip).

In fact, the interest in robotics systems has grown so much that the ASME has decided to add the topic to this technical conference on an annual basis, rather than biannually as in the past, noted engineer Curtis Collins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. His current projects involve design of a robotic arm for Mars exploration and a new mobile platform for a future moon mission. What was he looking for at the ASME conference? “University researchers are among the leaders in developing new analysis techniques for very complex robotics systems,” said Collins. “In such applications, there is no simple turnkey solution.

Exploring the micro-world

Many researchers at the conference were pursuing even more rudimentary systems, including the dynamic analysis of MEMs and NEMs structures. Todd Lillian, who is focusing on the dynamics of biological systems in his Ph.D.engineering program at Brigham Young University, delivered a paper on the mechanical behavior of DNA. While still in early stages, such work could be of interest to researchers developing medical nano-mechanisms that could be inserted into the body.

Already working on such nano-structures is Laxman Saggere, a professor with the Microsystems & Devices Laboratory at the University of Illinois Chicago. He presented a paper on a micromachined micromanipulator for moving nanoscale objects.

Still other hot topics at the conference included “smart structures,” materials that can change shapes with the help of sensors and actuators. Jalili of Clemson, for example, has been working with Michelin to develop smart tires with embedded piezoelectric patches. This “shape modulation system” automatically adjusts for deformation in the tires. In the same vein, Mathias Messer, a Ph.D. engineering student at Georgia Tech, presented his concept for futuristic products based on electronically-activated structures that can adapt to changes in the environment or to customer preferences.

Whatever their specialty, conference attendees noted an increased interest in mechatronics, both at the university level and in companies. “We are seeing more research into such areas as flexible multibody dynamics for automotive and for robotics for space exploration,” said Professor Jean-Claude Golinval of the University of Liege in Belgium.

“With so many mechanical systems now involving controls, mechatronics is becoming the mainstream content of mechanical engineering,” added Professor Petter Krus of Sweden’s Linköping University.

Professor Pierre Larochelle of Florida Institute of Technology agreed that mechatronics and embedded systems are fields that “are growing tremendously,” in part because of the strong backing of DARPA and NSF. Many schools, for example, have stepped up their work in autonomous vehicles as a result of DARPA’s Urban Challenge competition. Larochelle himself is working on humanoid robots that can change facial expressions. A potential application: Educational programs for autistic children.

But while there’s rising interest in adding mechatronics instruction, Jalili of Clemson pointed out that there’s always the challenge of fitting more mechatronics studies into an already crowded mechatronics curriculum. To make it easier for professors to integrate such courses, Jalili noted the popularity of laboratory kits from such companies as Quanser and ECP. These educational aids include a variety of components to explore robotics and other mechatronic applications.

Jalili believes that the trend toward broader-based engineering education will become even more entrenched. “Multidisciplinary experience is becoming more and more important,” said Jalili. “It can make you a winner.”

Undergraduate engineering students in the U.S. can’t get a degree in mechatronics yet, but that could change before long. In fact, one Canadian school – Simon Fraser University – recently launched such a program, with plans to hire up to 15 faculty members to support the new major.

Why the growing interest in mechatronics at the university level? Design News put that question to Harry H. Cheng, professor and director of the Integration Engineering Laboratory at the University of California-Davis. As chair of a newly formed ASME technical committee on mechatronic and embedded systems and applications, Professor Cheng sees an increasing demand for engineers skilled in multidisciplinary design.

Design News: Is mechatronics gaining more interest at the university level?

Harry Cheng: Yes. It’s a growing field that is a synergistic combination of mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, control engineering and software. Engineering graduates who are exposed to this interdisciplinary approach during their university years will be much more prepared for the challenges they face later on in industry.

DN: Are more companies looking for engineering graduates who are grounded in this multidisciplinary approach?

HC: Yes, and they are encouraging universities to do more. For example, one of our senior projects, sponsored by Lockheed Martin, was the design of a prototype robotic system that could be used to gather rock and soil samples on Mars. Building this prototype demanded all the elements that make up mechatronics design, including programming microcontroller, mechanical components and embedded systems.

DN: How are engineering schools responding to this growing interest in mechatronics?

HC: More mechanical engineering departments are starting to offer courses in mechatronics systems and are putting a greater emphasis on computer programming. That is certainly the case at my university. Outside of the U.S., and in Asia particularly, more universities are even offering degree programs in mechatronics. In such cases, the schools have to eliminate some traditional mechanical engineering courses in order to put more focus on electronics, computer modeling and embedded systems. Although it is already very difficult to cover all the core technologies required in a mechanical engineering degree program, I believe that more schools will try to find a way to include more mechatronics courses at the undergraduate level, as well as offer master’s degree programs in mechatronics.

DN: In terms of research on mechatronics systems, what does industry need most from university engineering departments?

HC:  Software development is very important. Industry is looking for help in developing smarter software that will adapt to next-generation mechatronics systems. Universities also are very active in developing new ways to model and simulate various components that go into a mechatronics design, as well as entire systems. You are seeing a lot of research into how cars communicate with each other and with roadside infrastructure, such as traffic control systems. Autonomous vehicles are another hot area of research that covers a whole range of technology -- from sensors to vision to motion. In medicine, there is also a great deal of work being done in robotics systems for surgery and other applications. These are just a few examples in a field that will continue to grow.

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