What is Mechatronics?
Introduction about mechatronics
The term “Mechatronics” began in Japan in the Sixties and Seventies. It became widely used by other countries in the following years. The mechatronics field is a mix between various branches of engineering like control engineering, mechanics, software engineering, electrical, and electronic engineering. Some people think that mechatronics engineer can replace electrical, electronics, and mechanical engineers, but this is far from true.
Mechatronics engineers are not “all-in-one” engineers — their main power resides in their wide view of different domains, and their ability to generate ideas that other engineers may not be able to come up with. The main skill that mechatronics engineers must have is the ability to make “system integration.” For example, when it comes to our engineering faculties' graduation projects, it is very common to find projects with mechanical parts, electrical parts, software parts, and control strategy simulation that work perfectly independently of one another. With that said, these parts often fail to work together in one complete system!
The role of mechatronics is to solve problems that are trapped in the intersected areas between engineering branches, and by this, mechatronics engineers are supposed to work with engineers from other disciplines, not to replace them.
The problems that requires mechatronical thinkingto solve are very tricky. It requires technical knowledge in several engineering domains, and we will see this in the following examples from real life.
One of my professors of engineering told us the following story:
The professor visited a factory, where the machine was experiencing a strange problem. This machine was driven by an AC controlled motor and every time the operator tries to turn the machine on, the bearings becomes very hot and expands until it causes the shaft inside to lock. The maintenance team tried changing the bearing, but the same thing happened again.
Is this a mechanical problem? Or electrical problem?
On the surface, it looks like it is purely a mechanical problem, but the professor discovered that it is actually an electrical problem, a very tricky one in fact!
Surprisingly, the problem was that the firing circuit (the circuit that is responsible for controlling AC power supplied to the AC motor) in the machine had something wrong with it, which caused the chopping of AC signal to produce a lot of harmonics. These harmonics produced electromagnetic fields that affected the metal inner race and outer race of the bearing, which caused the bearing to induce eddy currents, making the bearing hotter and hotter. (Fun fact: eddy currents are used as a method of heating in other applications like furnaces that melt gold and other kinds of metals. With that said, in our case it has a terrible effect on the bearing and mechanical system.)
The problem was solved by adjusting the firing circuit! Can you imagine?
Personally, I've faced similar situations where I was making an application that contains a microcontroller that controls filament lamp (AC load). I was in total confusion because the microcontroller started to restart randomly. It got me thinking: What is the source of the problem? Embedded Programming or Electrical/Electronic circuits?
In the end, it was the same problem as the first story! It was also harmonics that affected the microcontroller!
Differences between engineering disciplines are shrinking
Several years ago when I was in the faculty of engineering, a professor told us about some new advances in computerized numerically controlled machines (CNC machines) — CNC machines are now connected to the Internet. When there is a need to replace a machine tool (the machine will compute the life time of a machine tool and determine when it will need to be replaced), the machine will send the part number of the needed tool automatically to the manufacturer. What happens next is that a technical sales engineer will come to you (probably with a smile on his face) with all the needed tools, because everything has been automated!
In this example, this CNC machine contains not only mechanical and electrical components, but also interacts with the Internet and has an IP address as well.
What are some domains that are related to mechatronics ?
- Mechanical design
- Programming & Software Engineering
- Theory of Machines and Mechanisms
- Hydraulic and Pneumatics
- Signal Electronics and Power Electronics
- Basics of Machines and drives
- Embedded Systems
- Digital Signal Processing
- Modeling and Simulation
- Automatic Control Theory
- Sensors and Singal Conditioning
- Artificial Intelligence
- Computer Networks
- PLC, DCS, and SCADA
Personally, I believe that mechatronics engineers need to prepare themselves to be makers, or even inventors. Things are now easier than before — you now have 3D printing technology to make mechanical prototypes for your ideas, and there are Arduinos and Raspbery Pis out there to implement your logic on the system.
What are you waiting for? Come on and learn more about mechatronics! I promise it's full of fun!