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Articles from 2008 In October

In Search of Mechatronics Skills

Part 1: The Fundamentals

 If you were going to design a mechatronics engineer, how would that person look? What engineering skills would they have? What qualitative skills would they need? 

 If only it were that simple. The problem is, because mechatronics requires multiple disciplines, the likelihood of finding someone with the right mix — especially in an industry that prides itself on deep expertise — is difficult. “It’s a major problem finding engineers with a mechatronics skill set,” says Brian MacCleery, Senior Product Manager for Industrial and Embedded Design at National Instruments. “There just aren’t enough of them.” It’s incumbent, then, for both companies and engineers to understand what fundamental skills — both quantitative and qualitative — are necessary in order to develop the mechatronics expertise both of them need.

The Fundamental Skills

 One of the challenges, in MacCleery’s eyes, is the devotion to disciplines. Notwithstanding universities that offer specific mechatronics programs, he says, most educational institutions are focused on specific disciplines. “Most colleges are not organized for mechatronics,” he says, “where different departments are collaborating in team-oriented teaching.” Under the current structure, in which students declare a specific major, filters out mechatronics. 

 Barring a mechatronics degree, then, MacCleery recommends looking for engineers with modeling and simulation experience. “Multi-domain simulation is a key skill that mechatronics engineers need,” he says. “If you know how to optimize a design in the virtual world, you can refine and improve it.” Dr. Razvan Panaitescu, who manages the Application Development and Mechatronic Support Department within Siemens Energy and Automation, concurs.  

“Engineers need to know how to model and to simulate,” he says, but insists that more than that is necessary. “They need to know how to interpret the results of an analysis. That’s key for a mechatronics engineer.” At Siemens, Panaitescu adds, “We look more for electrical engineering degrees, because it’s the liaison between all the other disciplines. That curriculum puts a high emphasis on systems engineering and theory, which represent the fundamentals of mechatronics.”

 At the same time, he also considers physicists — sometimes even more than mechanical engineers — because they look at a broad spectrum of scientific domains. Systems knowledge is key for MacCleery as well. He recommends looking for engineers who’ve already shown they can bridge multiple domains, such motion control or embedded systems. “There is no one answer, because it depends on the project. Someone who understands motion control, because that’s the classic mechatronics challenge, but there’s more to mechatronics than that.” He looks for experience on a successful project that required collaboration across multiple domains. That’s important, because “they need to be able to see problems from different viewpoints.” And once they’ve done that, they’re on their way.

 “Once people have a solid fundamental understanding of, say, control engineering, and have been exposed to other fields like mechanical engineering and electromagnets, they are already extremely good candidates for mechatronics,” Panaitescu says. Prof. Dave Alciatore, who heads the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Colorado State University and teaches mechatronics, says that nothing beats hands-on experience. “Even if it’s only with small hobby projects,” he says. “True insight and knowledge comes only with experience.”

Part 2 of In Search of Mechatronics Skills will be posted Tuesday, November 4th.

Related Links

Mechatronics Engineers Know How To Balance

Career Advice at the Mechatronics Expo
How To Find a Job in Mechatronics Engineering

Nortel Assesses "Cisco Energy Tax" in its Ads

Nortel Assesses "Cisco Energy Tax" in its Ads

My product is greener than yours. Here comes green marketing.

Nortel in a unique assault on its chief rival is airing ads about the “Cisco energy tax,” which it claims is what IT departments pay for Cisco’s energy gulping products. There’s a lot of marketing in these ads so I cannot only verify that Nortel is using green to make its case. I cannot verify the accuracy of Nortel’s claims.

Nortel asserts its products use 40% less energy and that the total Cisco energy tax is $6.1 billion over the past five years. In other words, Cisco customers have spent that amount on energy costs they would not have to pay if they used Nortel products. That’s the pitch, anyway.   

It has enlisted several third parties (clearly for hire) to make its point and has a calculator on its web site that adds up the energy savings using Nortel products. The calculator looks a bit like a gimmick to harvest contact information. And Nortel is running ads that show folks with piles of cash that they wasted on energy with Cisco networks.

Cisco gave us the following written response, which I would have thought would have been stronger. But had it been, Cisco, the market leader, would be dragged into a contest that would have disputed Nortel’s claim, but validated its contest:

“While Cisco does not comment on competitor marketing campaigns, Cisco believes – and our customers have reiterated — that there is a strong need for an industry standard around “green” that is an apples-to-apples comparison and measure of what customers are asking for in evaluating LAN switching power consumption.  To that end, Cisco is leading discussions within a number of international standards organizations including the ITU, METI, ATIS and the Green Grid on the development of industry standards that take into account entire network system capabilities and efficiency.  The standards must take a holistic approach to environmental metrics for networking equipment, looking beyond ‘per device power draw’ and examining energy use, entire system capabilities and efficiency, and other critical networking measurements.”

 Cisco also claims that it has it has the first switches with a green designation but at the same times calls for standards for measuring green. Indeed, the playing field has to be level and the standards meaningful to folks who buy and use the products as well as pay for the energy to power them.

The Discovery Channel’s bug gadgets

Greg Adler, assistant editor of PC World shows off bug gadgets from the Discovery Channel’s online store. He shows off a remote control tarantula and a battery-operated Venus fly trap that actually catches flies.

iPod Restoration, Recycling...Forget it!

iPod Restoration, Recycling...Forget it!

The following was written by Karen Norris, a colleague at Design News. She tried to repair and in a sense recycle an old iPod. Here’s her experience.

I’m usually the one to buy the new technology as soon as it hits the shelves, but I also tend to keep it until something significantly better comes along.  I’ve also been a Mac-addict since the early 90’s and should have bought stock during those bad years, but I digress.  I have an original iMac, an original iPod and the first iPhone.  At work, I’m on an ancient Dell PC with an even older Samsung monitor…no beautiful flat screen for me yet.  You can probably gather that I fall into the “use until you lose” kind of person.  And then, I recycle…or at least try to. 


My story began in late June ‘08 when my old iPod no longer wanted to communicate with my car’s audio system.   Because of its size and weight, I only used it in my car and because I detest local radio and was hopelessly lost without it.  I tried a two different FM transmitters and even an AUX transmitter and nothing worked.  Along the way, I bought a new car so I accepted the fact that the logic board inside the iPod was finally dead after six years.   Not a bad run given everyday use.


No problem, I thought.  I’ll just fix it, I thought.  Cheaper and better for the environment.  I had bought the largest storage size it came with at the time and my 10 Gig of music barely scratched the surface of what it could hold…why not keep using it?  The Apple store Genius’ told me Apple doesn’t handle repairs at all and suggested iResQ, in Kansas.  They were lovely people and the process listed on their website seemed very easy…I thought it would work perfectly. I even agreed to the up sell of a new battery for it and counted the days until its return.  Well, it didn’t go well and it really made me rethink fixing something like this in the future.

iResQ neglected to tell me that they didn’t have the part in stock and it took nearly a month to get it in.  When I did get it back, I quickly realized that they hadn’t replaced the logic board at all or hadn’t tested it properly.  They offer to buy old iPods to stock their repair service as several others do on eBay, but clearly it didn’t work out here.  American Express had to stop payment on the charge because they didn’t ever credit me for services not performed…after 3 calls.  Frustrated, I sent it back and told them to just keep it for parts…maybe it would help someone else.  Strangely, they just sent it back again. 

So, long story short, the path isn’t always easy for someone trying to do the right thing for the environment.  Its just sitting in a closet now with 2 old printers.  I’m sure I’ll find someone to take it for parts someday but until then, I’ll just enjoy my new iPod.  Sorry planet.  Hopefully when that one dies, the process will be better. Now onto someone who can properly dispose of it.Word is Apple does it for free

Fluid Power Gets 'Em While They're Young

Fluid Power Gets 'Em While They're Young

Forget about Hooked On Phonics. What today’s students really need is to get Hooked On Hydraulics.

At least, that’s the point of a new education initiative from the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA) and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation. Last week, the two organizations announced they would team up to develop programs that teach fluid power concepts to middle- and high-school science students.

According to Eric Lanke, NFPA’s executive director, the fluid power curriculum will debut as early as Summer 2009, initially as part of the Gateway Academies run by the SME and Project Lead The Way. In the long term, the NFPA and SME plan to bring fluid power into other youth-based engineering programs as well as science classes during the school year. Lanke reports that the NFPA is also interested in summer camps that focus solely on promising fluid power applications–such as hydraulic hybrid vehicles.

So why all the effort to reach younger students? Lanke makes a case that fluid power knowledge amongst many working engineers isn’t what it should be, and he puts some of the blame on an engineering curriculum that gives hydraulics and pneumatics short shrift. “Engineering schools that teach fluid power at the early stage of the bachelor-level degree are the rare exceptions,” he says, noting that schools often require only “a chapter or two” in the third and fourth years.

Lanke hopes that an early introduction to hydraulics and pneumatics will make these technologies more attractive to science-minded students, especially at a time when many are being drawn to electronics and computers. “What we’re trying to do is get fluid power concepts on the radar screens of engineers before they even know they want to be engineers,” he says.

BN Execs Anguished over PTC Expense

This 1991 Harvard Business School (HBS) study on positive train control (PTC) shows how conflicted Burlington Northern executives were in spending $350 million for the 2,700-mile PTC rollout. Visit the HBS website if you wish to order the case for a nominal fee.

"Burlington Northern's decision whether to invest in ARES, an automated train control system, is a ($350 million) strategic investment in information technology. Although set in a service industry (railroad) the issues around this decision arise in many organizations and require the company to analyze the project from many perspectives. ARES offers the potential to change the basis of competition in the industry through technology. The company must consider the value, if any, of being first in the industry to adopt a technology; the potential impact on customer services, quality, and reliability; and the role and value of information systems technology. Burlington grapples with how to quantify both tangible and intangible benefits, and deliberates whether investments that yield improvement in hard-to-quantify factors such as reduced delivery time and improved service reliability can be subjected to the same financial scrutiny as equipment replacement decisions such as new locomotives. Demonstrates thoughtful, creative approaches to measuring hard-to-quantify benefits."

The full report can be ordered for a nominal fee from the Harvard Business School website.

IPC and JEDEC present lead free conference

IPC and JEDEC present lead free conference

The Association Connecting Electronics Industries (IPC) and the semiconductor industry’s standards organization, JEDEC, are sponsoring a conference entitled, Lead Free – Strategies for Implementation on December 8—10 at the Fairmont hotel in Dallas, Texas. The event features a full-day technical conference with a roster of speakers on a range of lead-free topics. Two full days of half-day workshops on the subject will be offered as well. Registrations by November 5 will receive a 10 percent discount.

Topics include the lead-free soldering process, understanding failure and root-cause analysis, and data management for eco compliance.

Online Video Research Center Addresses Engineering Knowledge Gap

LabCam, an online 24/7 video learning tool provided by Nu Horizons Electronics, offers electronics engineers concise and practical information about a host of topics available from the distributor's technology rich manufacturers. Prominently located on the company's home page at, the up to ten-minute long video tutorials explain and demonstrate integral aspects of complex engineering processes and procedures in straightforward, easy-to-understand teaching methods by experienced and knowledgable practitioners.

The web site feature is designed to address the practical realities that today's engineers face. While the pressures of time to market, innovation at lower cost, and global competition remain ever present, engineering personnel have precious few real world training and ongoing educational opportunities. With trade show technical sessions and workshops, professional organizations memberships and networking, and company travel budgets dwindling, on the job training and mentoring by experienced engineers has reached stop gap levels. Yet, technology advancement that demands creative application of fundamental engineering skills, challenges the limits of traditional learning resources.

Inspired by an ongoing quest for engaging educational experiences, engineers and designers are turning to the web for information exchange. LabCam's approach attempts to fill in knowledge gaps by offering practical, virtual hands on video demonstrations that include insights on products, evaluation kit overviews, end-user applications, and much more (see SIDEBAR listing below). As the video library grows, future web visitors may quickly download how-to setups for new products, review technical tips, and take step-by-step process tours - all saving training time on new equipment and process introductions at OEM and EMS manufacturing facilities.

"Today's engineers have more and more demands on their time," says Rita Megling, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Nu Horizons. "Advanced learning opportunities need to be delivered in a way that recognizes these time constraints. With Nu Horizons' LabCam program, we bring information to engineers faster, in an engaging format."

The LabCam program expands the role of this electronics distributor and emphasizes synergies between its suppliers and customer's engineers within the larger industry. As engineering workers become increasingly mobile, the need to support performance at the point of need is accelerating interest in web-enabled learning and technical-support tools, interactive checklists, podcasts, and video on demand products. By making practical information freely available, LabCam attempts to deliver engineering information that meets the speed of technical innovation.

New content suggestions to LabCam

The video tutorial library at Nu Horizons continues to grow. For updates, monitor the company website at At press time, the LED lighting applications list is available for download. A secondary list catalogs upcoming video tutorials.

LED lighting applications

• LEDs in action - home applications - OSRAM Opto Semiconductor

• LED Light Engine product overview - OptoElectronix

• OSTAR LED Module Engineering Evaluation Kit - OSRAM Opto Semiconductor

• LEDs in action - infrared, the future of invisible light - OSRAM Opto Semiconductor

Upcoming LabCam tutorial topics

• Introduction to a new generation of point-of-load DC/DC regulators - Linear Technology

• How to benefit from the use of high-performance microcontrollers with on-chip direct-drive capability to create products that show animation on TFT-LCD panels - Renesas Technology

• The Latest in Capacitive Touch Technology - Atmel

• The next generation in Atmel's AVR product family - XMEGA - Atmel

• Integrated, low-power 8bit MCUs optimized for LCDs, up to 1536 segments (64x24) with 12- and 24-bit on-chip ADCs - Oki Semiconductor

FPGAs Advance to Meet Communications Speeds

A confluence of technological advancements has propelled FPGAs forward presenting systems designers with attractive solutions that deliver higher performance in smaller spaces. With the advent of system on a chip (SOC) technology, several disparate functions have been condensed and now reside on a single chip. These complex devices now have such functions as Ethernet MACs (media access controllers), embedded processors, DSP blocks and high speed I/O embedded in their architectures.

In addition, several serial standards and protocols such as PCI Express, Serial Rapid I/O, Ethernet, Fibre Channel and SerialLite have enabled widespread acceptance of high-speed serial transceivers embedded into today's system on a chip FPGAs. Now it is not uncommon to find 3.125-Gbits/s or even 6.5 Gbits/s high-speed transceivers on an FPGA. However, with multiple functions and high-speed communications capability on board, FPGAs still need to interface with other components to realize their true potential.

Fortunately, the evolution of SOC technology and circuit board assembly technology have occurred on parallel paths. In fact, ease of integration represents one primary driver behind FPGA proliferation. Unlike the recent past, when system developers grappled with integration issues presented by multiple chip solutions, these new FPGAs with embedded functionality offer near plug and play capability - using standard surface mount technology processes for mounting on boards - since the integration has already taken place inside the chip.

That integration can be enhanced in some devices by replacing metal interconnect layers with vertical connections inside the chip to solder bump arrays that protrude through the chip package for eventual alignment with board pads during the surface mount soldering process. Not only does this ease integration with board assembly, it also further optimizes signal integrity and facilitates speed by providing the shortest path possible for signal travel.

The 65nm Virtex®-5 family from Xilinx delivers the newest and most powerful features available on the market today. The Virtex-5 family is made up of five distinct platforms optimized for logic functions, high-speed serial I/O, DSP and embedded processing. In addition to the most advanced, high-performance logic fabric, Virtex-5 FPGAs contain many hard-IP system level blocks, including powerful 36-Kbit block RAM/FIFOs, second generation 25 x 18 DSP slices, SelectIOTM technology with built-in digitally controlled impedance, ChipSyncTM source-synchronous interface blocks, system monitor functionality, enhanced clock management tiles with integrated DCM (digital clock managers) and phase-locked-loop (PLL) clock generators, and advanced configuration options.

Additional platform dependent features include power-optimized high-speed serial transceiver blocks for enhanced serial connectivity, PCI ExpressTM compliant integrated Endpoint blocks, tri-mode Ethernet MACs, and high-performance PowerPC® 440 microprocessor embedded blocks.

"These features allow advanced logic designers to build the highest levels of performance and functionality into their FPGA-based systems," says Brent Przybus, Senior Marketing Manager for advanced products at Xilinx. "Virtex-5 FPGAs deliver a risk-free alternative to custom ASICs because they offer a broad range of advanced, domain-optimized system-on-chip features and are supported by industry-leading tools, IP, and technical services."

Clearly, FPGA technology is poised for proliferation across multiple applications and industries. The benefits of smaller footprint, lower power consumption, increased flexibility and performance, faster speeds, affordable cost, and the absence of interfacing issues with two-chip solutions make FPGA SOCs with the embedded accoutrements described above an elegant solution for board designers. Moreover, as these advanced devices gain critical mass, we will certainly see them designed in to more and more applications.

Invention Machines’ Case For Sustainable Innovation

Invention Machines’ Case For Sustainable Innovation

As manufacturers hunker down to face the grim realities of today’s harsh economic climate, it seems a bit incongruous to discuss technology investments to foster innovation. Yet at Invention Machine’s first annual user group conference held this week at Boston’s Museum of Science, that was exactly the  theme of discussion between Invention Machine execs and a roster of blue chip clients, including Johnson & Johnson, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman and Delphi, among others.

Invention Machine CEO Mark Atkins described a new global landscape where change is happening so fast that innovation has become a mandatory requirement for companies looking to compete. Despite the challenges of the financial and economic crisis, Atkins said energy and environmental concerns, product obsolescence (70% of today’s revenue-generating products will be obsolete within five years, he says) and the mass exodus of knowledge workers to retirement (60% in two to five years) are increasing the pressure on companies to unearth new revenue streams and market opportunities.

At the same time, Atkins cited a bunch of statistics that underscore the problems companies face when it comes to innovation. For every 13 product ideas, only one is successfully delivered, he said.  He also referenced Kuczmarski & Associates’  findings that for every successful product launched, there are 12 failures, a statistic that costs Fortune 1,000 companies nearly $60 billion annually in wasted development efforts.

How can companies break this unproductive cycle? According to Atkins, by embracing a sustainable innovation strategy, which establishes a framework and processes that bring uniformity, repeatability and knowledge-enablement to help companies better compete on this new scale. Obviously, that’s where Invention Machine’s Goldfire innovation platform fits in. As Jim Belfiore, Invention Machine’s certified innovation master put it: “You’ve got to find ways to survive and prosper in these uncharted waters. 2009 is going to be a pivotal year and innovation is one of the most valuable assets that will ensure a company’s success in the future.”