“Swiss Army knife.”
That’s how Kalen Berry describes himself and his fellow mechatronics students when it comes to factory machinery.
“If someone says, ‘Hey, this isn’t working,’ we can point out where the problem is and say, ‘This is what you need to fix it,” says Berry, a senior in mechatronics engineering technology, a new degree program started in the fall of 2018.
“That’s pretty much what mechatronics is,” explains Ethan Hickman, another senior in the program.
For those not familiar with the term “mechatronics,” it covers a wide range of engineering disciplines—mechanical, electrical, robotics, computer science, machine design. Swiss Army knife is definitely applicable.
Berry and Hickman are standing in the mechatronics lab on the third floor of the Engineering, Math and Computer Science building. The lab is a head-swiveling array of machines and computers and other components that make the machines run.
A working replica of a production line stretches along one side of the room. Just like some of its larger brothers, it starts with a small plastic container at one end then, depending on the programming instructions entered by the engineer, an exact weight of tiny red, blue or yellow plastic balls are poured in—again, the color of the balls are programmed in before the process starts. The container moves machine by machine down the line, top put on. Label attached. Until it’s ready to be loaded up and shipped out.
Being able to troubleshoot machinery such as the production line is one of the goals for graduates of the mechatronics degree program. Still, even though they’ll have the skills, graduates of the program aren’t expected to actually operate or repair machines. As Berry said, they’ll just point to the problem in a machine; someone else will fix it.
“Our ideal situation is that, when they graduate and they go to work and they look at the work, they will say, ‘I’ve seen all this. I’ve done all this. There really is nothing new here. The function may be different, but I’ve seen similar things.’ What we’re doing is advance workforce training” says Ahad Nasab, head of the Department of Engineering Management and Technology and creator of the mechatronics program.
Another goal is to give students the capability to design new machines or modify existing ones, he says.
Most companies are constantly changing the machines they already have, he explains, so there is a constant need for mechanical engineers who can do the work.
“So they say, ‘Let’s change this machine so it does something different or does more or faster or better,’” Nasab says. “Our students can actually get in there and redesign these machines, modify these machines.
In today’s manufacturing world, there’s essentially no such thing as buying a machine off-the-shelf, Nasab says. Almost everything is custom-built because each company has specific needs.
“There’s hardly any machine they would go and buy that’s perfect for what they’re doing. All the products are different shapes and sizes and weight and texture and all that.”
Companies that design and build the customized machines are known as “automation solutions,” Nasab says, and they’re extremely busy.
“Sometimes they’re in a situation that they can’t take any more jobs, which is a good thing for them,” he says. But those are the very companies where UTC graduates could land since “that’s where the machine building and designing takes place.”
Berry had internships at Logan Aluminum near Bowling Green, Kentucky, and said he changed his major from mechanical engineering to mechatronics afterward. When asked where they might land jobs after graduating, he and Hickman quickly rattle off several companies, including Volkswagen and TVA. The choices are far-reaching, they say.
“Pretty much any plant that has robotics is going to have mechatronic engineers in it,” says Hickman.