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.