Career Profile: Mechatronics Engineering

May 5, 2014

Mechatronics engineering is an interdisciplinary field combining aspects of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and software engineering. This is then applied to robotics, control systems, automation, and process design in a promisingly wide and diverse range of industries.

Standard-setting companies like Tesla, Apple, SpaceX, Google actively seek candidates with mechatronics backgrounds to keep ahead of innovation. Instead of groups of people across disciplines who may or may not work well together, they want engineers with deep knowledge of many different systems.

In this article, we’ll cover what it takes to become a mechatronics engineer, what compensation and prospects you can expect, and what mechatronics engineering looks like in the field.

The Mechatronics Track in Your Engineering School

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Credit: Matthew Roth

The state of mechatronics education in the US is a bit confusing. In Australia and the UK, a myriad of university programs produce mechatronic engineers. In the US, “mechatronics engineering technology” programs are often  found in community colleges and technical schools; these programs produce technicians, not engineers.

Currently, there are only two ABET-accredited undergrad degree programs in mechatronics engineering (and a few universities awaiting ABET accreditation):

Common scenarios in other ABET-accredited schools include the following:

  1. Individual mechatronics courses as part of the regular mechanical or electrical engineering curriculum
  2. Mechatronics certificate programs
  3. Graduate students designing their own mechatronics tracks with the help of their department head(s)

You may have to design your own mechatronics track by taking extra classes and bumping up your studies in other departments. For the value it adds to your human capital, it may be something you want to take up with your advisor. There’s no question we need more ABET-accredited mechatronics degree programs in the US. Your interest in mechatronics may help make that happen.

So, never fear! Even a single course can make a world of difference as it enflames your interest, like an Intro to Mechatronics.

Mechatronics Engineering Courses

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Mechatronics topics include:

  • Physics
  • Math
  • CAD
  • Programming—Embedded systems, VHDL
  • Electronics, Circuits
  • Materials
  • Pneumatics
  • Communications
  • Stress and Dynamics
  • Instrumentation
  • Motion Control
  • Machine Automation
  • System Design
  • Control Systems
  • Solid & Fluid Mechanics
  • Dynamics & Statics
  • Modeling

As we mentioned before, you’ll have to cross-disciplines to get the background you need – and that means a relatively heavy course load as compared to your peers. (You could start with MIT OpenCourseware.)

Use your electives wisely. Take more classes than you need to. Mechatronics could easily be a five- or six-year degree. Specialize. You’ll be worth more later.

After graduation, you may end up working in high-level design, in project management, or as a crucial communications link between departments or disciplines. Place high value on learning to communicate. Good writing and public speaking skills are particularly powerful. It will make you indispensable to many different departments and gives you an intense competitive edge against other engineers in the market.

Mechatronics Engineering in the Real World

One way to envision how a mechatronics background will look out in the corporate or research worlds is to see concrete examples.

Automotive Mechatronics

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Cars are getting smarter. The standard for intelligent safety features, efficiency, comfort, and functionality is getting higher. Many features that were only available in high-end cars are now standard—but that’s the nature of technology and the economy.  The demand for safer, more efficient cars can only go up.

People are (or will soon be) in the market for cars that sense danger, interact more thoroughly with their devices, customize to them more intelligently… Any new methods or components that bridge the gap between sensor data, intelligent functionality, and human interaction are all within the realm of mechatronics.

Examples of some of the work that mechatronic engineers might do in the automotive industry:

  • Design new auto components that integrate mechanical, electrical, and software components
  • Design, develop, or test new types of instrumentation, and intelligent sensors and interfaces
  • Develop new plant automation methods
  • Develop new manufacturing processes
  • Test multi-disciplinary products and design
  • Be a vital communications liaison between departments
  • Bring automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, and advanced technologies to areas yet unimagined

Academic Research, MIT Mechatronics

Mechatronics is a relatively new field and is often at the heart of developing technologies. As such, reviewing the work coming out of academic centers of thought is a great way to survey your possibilities.

The Mechatronics Research Laboratory (MRL) at MIT is a hub of mechatronics research and development. From the website:

“…In this laboratory, we conduct research and development in the areas of system dynamics, modeling, instrumentation, control systems, and design with applications to nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics and automation.”

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Credit: Richard Greenhill and Hugo Elias

A quick scan of some MRL patents gives you a cross-section of upcoming mechatronics applications:

  • “Localization And Tracking System For Mobile Robots”
  • “High-Frequency Rheology System Coupled to Commercial AFMs”
  • “Wireless Communication Systems for Underground Pipe Inspection”
  • “Controllable Friction Varying Mechanism with Minimum Energy Consumption”
  • “In-pipe Leak Detection Based on Pressure Gradient”
  • “Mechanical Fish Robot Exploiting Vibration Modes For Locomotion”
  • “Leak and Contamination Detection Micro-Submarine for Water and Liquids Distribution System/Microelectronic Leak and Contamination Sensing Fish” (Pending)
  • “Spectroscopic Systems and Methods”
  • “A Method to Identify and Compensate for In-Plane Resonances of a Scanning Probe Microscope” (Pending)
  • “Color Image Segmentation in an Object Recognition System”
  • “Image De-convolution Techniques for Probe Scanning Apparatus”
  • “Dual-Drive System for Micro-Manipulation of Direct-Drive Robotic Systems”

Another academic leader is the Stanford University Smart Product Design Laboratory, where mechatronics education is directly tied to product realization of Smart Products – items with increased functionality via embedded systems. Mechatronic robot wars are also part of Stanford’s engagement efforts.

Many mechatronics-based start-ups begin at universities, often as an offshoot of senior projects. It’s exciting to see school study immediately become commercially viable and vital to industry.

Future Mechatronics Engineers

Mechatronics engineering requires creative achievers. Consider mechatronic engineering as a kind of practical futurology. Your training may call you into action for mechanical as well as electrical work. Industry is quickly recognizing the value of engineers trained in multiple disciplines because of what it means for innovation – not to mention our chances of building the Iron Man suit.

A note on the word mechatronics (and why you often won’t see it in job searches):

The term is a portmanteau of “mechanical” and “electronic” and is used these days in varying capacities. Job searches for “mechatronics” won’t yield many results, though that may start to change soon. Instead, one type of engineering (mechanical, electrical, software, systems, etc.) may be advertised with candidates expected to have experience or working knowledge of the other disciplines.

We may start to see the term more as companies start to place more value on interdisciplinary engineering over narrow specialization.