Mechatronics Expo 2008 focused on the skills engineers need to create smart electro-mechanical systems

By Joseph Ogando, Senior Editor

Engineering success in the coming years will increasingly be defined not just by specific technical skills but also by how engineers choose to apply those skills. That view came out loud and clear at the , a conference held yesterday in Santa Clara, CA.

The bulk of the conference focused on the skills and tools engineers use to create intelligent electro-mechanical systems, and make no mistake that mechatronics will require conventionally trained engineers to make some adjustments.

One presentation, for example, delved into the up-and-coming field of micromechatronic systems. “Small things can solve some very big problems,” said Tai-Ran Hsu, a micromechatronics researcher and a mechanical engineering professor at San Jose State University.

Yet smallness also creates its share of engineering challenges. Hsu explained that micro- and even nano-scale intelligent systems require engineers to rethink much of what they know about design. For the very smallest systems, size-dependent properties can make the classic mechanics invalid, according to Hsu.

Small systems, which are created using microfabrication or nanotech methods, also change what engineers know about manufacturing. “Traditional machine tools have no place in micromechatronics,” Hsu said.

It’s not just small systems that require engineers to learn new things. Ed Nicolson, a Ph.D. engineer who directs Yaskawa’s technology development efforts, gave a talk on the growing need for engineers who are well-versed in the digital servo networks found in industrial mechatronic systems.

According to Nicolson, the problem is many newly minted engineers still don’t know much about these networks and may leave school without having worked with PLC-based industrial automation systems. “It’s something I didn’t learn anything about when I was in school,” he said. “And as I interview new candidates for jobs, I get a blank stare when I ask about networks.”

The conference also served as a forum for the notion that there’s more to engineering than technical skills — whether related to mechatronics or not.

Dr. Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the SMU Engineering School, kicked off the 2008 Mechatronics Expo with a keynote speech about the “role that dreaming plays in engineering.” He didn’t mean daydreams during a long day at the office or nightmares about product failures. Instead, he meant dreams in the sense of having a vision for the future, one that guides engineers to shape society in a positive way.

One vision Orsak believes engineers should embrace involves a greater commitment to the world’s poor, particularly in the developing world. “We’re the last great hope for these people,” he said. He then ran through a laundry list of technological advances of the past century — and promptly debunked the notion that any one of them should be considered an unqualified engineering success. “We’ve checked things off our list that are still not complete,” he said.

To take two of his technology examples, electrification and safe water distribution may be taken for granted here in the West, but billions of people in the developing world still live without either one.

“Engineering is not a gadget discipline. It’s a people discipline,” he said, before advising engineers not to love technologies for their own sake but for their impact on human beings on the ground. “Remember what the end game is all about,” he said.