I have long thought we need a new, catchy term to describe the sophisticated job skills needed to work in modern manufacturing -- preferably something that would capture the imagination of young people and attract them to manufacturing -- and I am beginning to think that "mechatronics" may just be that term.
To be sure, mechatronics is not a new word. It was coined more than 40 years ago by a Japanese engineer named Tetsuro Mori, and registered as a trademark by his employer, Yaskawa Electric Corporation. However, the company soon after released the right to use the term that has gradually grown in usage over the years in a number of venues in Japan and around the world.
As originally defined, mechatronics is a multidisciplinary field of engineering that combines mechanics and electronics but it has gradually evolved to encompass more technical areas. The French standard NF E 01-010 defines it as an "approach aiming at the synergistic integration of mechanical electronics control theory and computer science within product design and manufacturing in order to improve and or optimize its functionality."
In layman's terms, mechatronics combines diverse areas of engineering to enhance the skills of workers to make products with smart digital devices that enable them to consistently meet demanding specifications which are constantly being upgraded. This is the essence of advanced modern manufacturing.
Mechatronics covers a wide spectrum from 3D printing to advanced welding, from machinery maintenance to TQM, from digital design to shaping steel. In essence, this is a new education/training discipline that prepares bright young people for lucrative careers in modern manufacturing. Mechatronics is modern manufacturing writ large.
In reality, though mechatronics does require a background in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) it is well within the capacity of people of reasonable intelligence to master. In fact, there is a new one-year program in mechatronics developed with government funding awarded to the National STEM Consortium (NSC) and 10 leading community colleges in nine states. It prepares people for positions such as mechatronics technician; electrical and electronics repair; commercial and industrial equipment, maintenance and repair; machinery maintenance; electronics engineering technicians; electro-mechanical technicians; robotics technicians; mechanical engineering technicians; and electrical and electronic equipment assemblers. The one-year course would presumably lead to more in-depth training to enable practitioners to acquire more advanced skills.
The Obama administration's focus on advanced manufacturing, including its new manufacturing hubs, also includes provisions for education and training. There is tremendous opportunity for bright young people interested in manufacturing careers. I believe we will be hearing a lot more about mechatronics in the years ahead as we invest more time and resources into developing a 21st century manufacturing workforce.
Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. July 2014