By Richard Comerford,
I wish I had a dollar for each time I asked an EE about the use of mechatronics for a development project and got the response, “What’s that?” And I’m not just talking about IC designers, but about people involved with designing electromechanical systems like disk drives, as well as those who are responsible for developing everything from MEMS to pick-and-place robots.
I find the lack of recognition among the electronics community a bit disheartening. Mechatronics has been around now for several decades, and many universities are now offering courses taught by professors who are dedicated to the discipline. Yet mechatronics has nowhere near the recognition of, say, electronics, or robotics, or bionics, or even hydroponics.
I suppose there may be several reasons for that situation. For one thing, people had actually been using electronic controls for mechanical systems long before the term mechatronics was coined. Things like automatic doors and air conditioners have been around for a long time, as has the pop-up toaster, all of which are examples of simple mechatronic systems.
Robots have been a part of the popular culture for so long that people don’t typically associate them with mechatronics. The discipline of building robots — robotics, which is actually a subset of the field of mechatronics — also predates mechatronics. So everyone thinks they know what you mean when you say “robot,” but I wonder what would happen if you tried dropping “mechatron” into
Another reason for the relative obscurity among EEs of mechatronics may be political. Sometimes, getting engineers from different disciplines to work together is like trying to get the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force to agree on who has the best football team. As an EE, I can remember how in college we used to disparage civil engineers as “road crew,” mechanical engineers as “gear heads,” and chemical engineers as “stink bombs,” knowing with the certainty of youth that only those who could command the electron to do their bidding were masters of the universe.
I doubt that even today there are many computer scientists or electronics engineers who would be happy to admit that mechanical design is equally as important as their disciplines. And for them to relearn their approach to design with a broader set of tools is by no means an easy process.
Nonetheless, areas that hold the most promise for advancement in the future — such things as haptics, MEMS, and advanced HMI — are inherently mechatronic in nature, and will require interdisciplinary knowledge for success. Sure, mechatronics may require better PR or an agent who can sell it to Hollywood, but regardless of how successfully it is promoted to the masses, those technologists who are ignorant of it may soon find themselves not only out of touch, but also out of work.