January/February 2011

Factory Automation

Mechatronics: A vertical perspective

Mechatronics is improving efficiency, effectiveness of machines and manufacturing


  • Today, one might find chemical, optical, and biological topics among those studied in undergraduate mechatronics programs.
  • There are three levels of expertise in the domain of mechatronics: engineer, technologist, and technician.
By Dr. Ken Ryan

Factory Automation: Mechatronics, A vertical perspectiveMechatronics is now globally accepted, and it is improving manufacturing's and machines' efficiency and effectiveness. Education institutions are responding by creating new programs of study that reflect the interdisciplinary nature of mechatronics. As the technologies of automation evolve and the applications broaden, mechatronics is gaining traction as the foundation for a hybrid professional of the future that blends knowledge of electronics with traditional mechanical applications and other related disciplines. Mechatronics is another tool for automation to improve plant and process efficiencies.

First, let's get the definition out of the way. According to Wikipedia, mechatronics is "the synergistic combination of Mechanical engineering, Electronic engineering, Computer engineering, Control engineering, and Systems Design engineering in order to design and manufacture useful products. The term mechatronics is defined as a multidisciplinary engineering system design-that is to say it rejects splitting engineering into separate disciplines.

The history of mechatronics

The term mechatronics was first introduced in Japan in 1969 by Yaskawa Senior Engineer Tetsura Mori to describe the integration of mechanics and electronics. Yaskawa received the rights to use the word as a registered brand in 1973. However, it was not until the late 1980s that the term started gaining additional popularity and meaning. Yaskawa later decided not to renew its trademark and relinquished the rights to the term to facilitate industry's research and advancement of the technology.

The term is widely used in Europe, but though it has gained considerable recognition among engineers, it is not otherwise commonly used in the U.S. Although mechatronics is generally less recognized than the more traditional engineering domains it leverages, it is nevertheless gaining traction globally and is widely recognized in industry and education.

As the scope of the definition for mechatronics has grown, so has the number of traditional science and engineering disciplines its Venn diagram encompasses. Today, one might find chemical, optical, and biological topics among those studied in undergraduate mechatronics programs.

Because so many engineering problems today are most efficiently solved by integrating a number of technologies, which span a variety of disciplines, it is necessary to transcend the traditional bounds of normal electrical, mechanical, computer, chemical, and manufacturing engineering to conceptualize and design better solutions. Solutions teams comprised of individuals with foundational understandings of several disciplines and deeply grounded in the design process will offer the best opportunity for effective design solutions for interdisciplinary problems. Mechatronics is the combination of trans-disciplinary conceptualization/implementation by individual engineers/technologists operating as interdependent members of a multidisciplinary team to synthesize optimal engineering systems.

Looking at the definition of mechatronics, it is easy to imagine a wide variety of disciplines that can legitimately be classified under the "mechatronic umbrella." On the surface, this seems to require little more than a combination of previously segregated disciplines (mechanical, electronic, control, and design) involving a mere perforation of some faculty office walls at traditional engineering universities. What ended up happening was much more profound. The innovative synergy created with the destruction of these artificial disciplinary walls was a bit more exponential than expected; in particular, the introduction of computing and controls engineering into the mix allowed solution teams to recognize the amount of mechanical functionality that could be "virtualized" at the design level leveraging electronics and computing to replace mechanics. This is why so many systems today are considered "mechatronic" systems. Everything from cell phones to robots to timber harvesters are benefiting from this integrated design, implementation, and management paradigm.

Mechatronics today

Factory Automation_Mechatronics

The Center for Applied Mechatronics, which is part of Alexandria Technical College in Minnesota, views mechatronics from a perspective that is integrated not only horizontally, as mentioned above, but also vertically by skill level. We recognize three levels of expertise in the domain of mechatronics.

  • Engineer: Responsible for the initial conceptualization and design of a mechatronic solution to a specific problem or need. Needs a foundational appreciation for the synergy between mechanical, electronic, software, and control theory engineering topics, as well as a deep understanding of the design process.
  • Technologist: Responsible for implementation of the mechatronic solution design as a member of an integrated interdisciplinary team. Needs a functional knowledge of the applied characteristic of mechanical, electronic, and informatics components (and the interface dynamics between components of these diverse engineering domains) to bring the design to reality in a timely and cost-effective manner.
  • Technician: Responsible for life-cycle operation and maintenance of the mechatronic solution. Needs an applied knowledge of the interdependency of the mechanical, electrical, and informatics components of the mechatronic system.

As a two-year education institution, we are charged with providing the technologist and technician level practitioners that will be in increasing demand in the decades ahead. As our name indicates, we are principally focused on the "applied" aspects of mechatronics.

We have found it is not enough to simply introduce concepts of electronics and informatics to the traditionally mechanical approach of technologist and technician training. In fact, most of the creative promise of mechatronics lies at the interfaces of these disciplines. It is easy to see the problem in teaching a computer technology student how to program a servomotor axis with no appreciation for the concept of power regeneration or the principles of resonance in physical systems. The result can quickly become a control algorithm that, although elegant in its informatics, is completely beyond the performance envelope of the physical system. Another "interface" problem is illustrated by not appreciating the latency that can be introduced by a poorly designed or implemented communication network and the resultant impact on deterministic system behavior. Only when one appreciates the interdependent limitations of all three engineering domains (mechanical, electrical, and informatics) and the interfaces between them can effective application of their principles create an operational and competitive solution.

Mechatronic technologist

The Center for Applied Mechatronics has elected to base its mechatronic foundation on the fluid power legacy that characterizes our history. We participated in the renaissance of the packaging machine industry over the past decade, as these largely mechanical systems leveraged the flexibility of servomotor technology to pull 50% or more of the mechanical linkage (and resultant system elasticity) out of the system. Among the principle benefits is system speeds. By eliminating mechanical inefficiencies, closed-loop dynamics have now entered the sub-millisecond range. The resultant mechatronics platforms are faster, cheaper, more nimble, more reliable, and more dynamic than their predecessors. In addition, these systems require less maintenance and generally have lower mean time to repair.

We now are observing the mobile fluid power industry undergo its own metamorphosis to data centric, distributed control platforms with high-speed, network-driven closed-loop control with the applications of mechatronics. Again, we see the virtualization of previously mechanical feedback systems into sensor/control/actuator networks requiring a high level of interdisciplinary technology acumen.

These mobile mechatronic platforms are amalgams of technology from all of the traditional engineering technology domains. Any integration team charged with the goal of implementing these mechatronic platforms with anything approaching competitive velocity will need to have talented cross-functional technologists aware of a wide breadth of technology and firmly grounded in industry standards. The mandate for standards is clear when one considers the permutations of interfaces (one technology with another) that will be the signature of a best-in-breed solution design. The technologists need a firm foundation in material science, applied physical principles, electricity, basic digital electronics, networking, programmable logic, and CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing). In addition, team, written, and oral communication skills will be highly valued. Any single individual will obviously possess each of these skills to varying degrees but must, at minimum, be fundamentally aware of the importance and interrelation of all.

Mechatronic technician

This is the operator/maintainer of the mechatronic system during the bulk of its life cycle. The most effective fluid power technician will understand that the proportional valve in the system for which they are responsible is under the control of a programmable controller running an algorithm written in a standardized language over a communication network with a standardized protocol handling feedback information from a state-of-the-art sensor. As more and more operators will be placed in primary life-cycle management responsibility for mechatronic platforms and systems, they too will benefit from an appreciation for the interrelationship of the various technology components represented in their system.

Future of mechatronics

The need for mechatronics will continue to expand as the global demand for cost-effective product design and manufacturing accelerates. The ongoing "virtualization" of the mechanical elements of design will demand that computer-based modeling, simulation, and control remain deeply ingrained in the life-cycle management of mechatronic systems. This increasing reliance on information driven technology, or "infomatics," will drive the need for multidisciplinary technologist and technicians. It will only be a matter of time before industry, frustrated by the "silo" mentality of traditional boundaries, will begin to seek out this multi-talented employee. The efficiencies gained will justify a competitive wage in return for a more functional and knowledgeable employee.

In the area of mobile applications, the drive toward mechatronic design principles based on open international standards will continue to mature. This is a very cost-competitive, end-user driven market sector with extremely short time-to-market windows.

There will be an inexorable progression toward open standards. As informatics modeling of solutions extracts the time and cost involved in iterative prototyping from the design process, standardization of the modeling tools becomes critical. An excellent example of this is the move toward generation of control code directly from the state-based functional design specification. Facilitated by such standards as the Unified Modeling Language and the IEC-61131-3 programming standard, this development promises to further compress the concept-to-consumer time scale.


Dr. Ken Ryan is the director of the Center for Applied Mechatronics at Alexandria Technical and Community College in Alexandria, Minn. As a member of the Board of Management for PLCopen, he has authored several courses on the application of the IEC 61131-3 programming standard during the mechatronic design process.