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mechatronics

Mechatronics is a branch of engineering that focuses on designing, manufacturing and maintaining products that have both mechanical and electronic components. The term was coined in 1969 by engineer Tetsuro Mori to describe the synergy that exists between electrical control systems and the mechanical machines they regulate. Since then, the meaning of the term has broadened to include the integration of multiple other disciplines, including computer engineering, systems engineering and programming.

As a design philosophy, mechatronics values systems thinking and an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving. Fairly recently in information technology (IT), the DevOps movement broke down the wall between software development and operations, encouraging IT pros to work in cross-departmental teams. Mechatronics has caused the same sea change in engineering. In many industries today, engineers have to work in cross-discipline, collaborative teams in order to ensure that the complex, highly integrated systems they are designing will run smoothly.

To understand the concept of mechatronics, one can simply think about today's automobiles. The average car today has between 25 and 50 central processing units (CPUs) that control mechanical functions. A driver support system (DSS) such as anti-lock breaks is designed with mechatronics; the electronic control system takes over the braking function when sensors recognize that one or more wheels are locking up. A pneumatic tire pressure monitoring system is also designed with mechatronics; each tire has a sensor inside that sends data to an onboard electronic control system. If the pressure on one tire is low, the embedded software in the control system sends an alert to the vehicle’s dashboard and a tire gauge icon lights up. Even an automobile’s air bag is designed with mechatronics; a micro-electrical machine (MEM) in the front of the automobile will deploy an airbag when sensor data indicates rapid deceleration.

Thinking holistically has allowed engineers to make great strides in advancing automation and robotics. It has also allowed them to create smarter products, smaller products and tiny, efficient product components at the nanotech level. In order to successfully operate, diagnose and maintain electromechanical, automated equipment, it’s become necessary for support technicians to re-skill formally and informally on a frequent basis. Siemens AG, one of the world's largest high-tech manufacturing corporations, offers a professional certification program for mechatronics, and an increasingly large number of colleges and universities are offering courses of study for this emerging technology.

According to the United States Department of Labor, mechatronics is an emerging growth area for employment. In addition to automotives, industries that rely upon mechatronics include aerospace, appliance design and repair, banking, energy and power production and distribution, farming, food processing, manufacturing, mining and healthcare.

Although many implementations of mechatronic design are intended to operate in the back-end and can be easily overlooked, these mechatronic robots from Boston Dynamics, MIT and Honda provide the viewer with an uncanny valley experience this is quite difficult to ignore.

This was last updated in January 2017

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