John Payne
Vice President
R&D and Motion Div.
Yaskawa Electric America
Waukegan, Ill.

Today, it’s hard not to come across mechatronics in some way, shape, or form.

Functionally, it was a blend of mechanical systems and electronics that evolved over the years. During the 1970s, it focused on servotechnology, where mechatronics simplified sophisticated controls in devices such as automatic door openers and autofocus cameras. In the 1980s, microprocessors imbedded into mechanical systems improved performance of systems ranging from antilock brakes to electric seats. And in the 1990s, mechatronics centered on communication among machines, such as networked equipment for producing air bags.

Today, mechatronics still merges mechanics and electronics, but it is much more than that. It also includes the synergistic integration of software and information technology, control engineering, and sensor and actuator technology. All in all, mechatronics influences many different realms, including manufacturing, motion control, micro devices, vibration and noise control, and various automotive systems, just to name a few.

The demand for mechatronics continues unabated. Two main drivers are a shrinking global market and the need for reliable, cost-effective products. Mechatronics lets manufacturers rapidly react to change, price products competitively, and shorten product-development cycles — absolute necessities for any company.

In the future, mechatronics will increasingly focus on making products safer, more reliable, and affordable. It will also play a large role as the use of robotics continues to expand and improve efficiency, productivity, accountability, and control. Robots not only master repetitive and dangerous tasks, but they do it economically and with lower margins of error. Companies using robotics will have the luxury of keeping work in their own plants rather than outsourcing it overseas to low-cost producers.

Mechatronics is also projected to play a major role in the medical field, as well as in computer-based manufacturing. Instead of building a computer to run a machine, mechatronics will help make the computer part of the machine.

Mechatronics shouldn’t change the design process but, rather, give engineers greater knowledge, freedom, and versatility to develop concepts into products more efficiently. It also improves cross-discipline communications. In the past, mechanical and electronics engineers tended to stick to what they knew best when solving problems — drawing on a knowledge base and design tools within to their own field. Mechatronics integrates different technologies and lets engineers draw on whatever resources are needed to solve problems most effectively — or even develop totally new design processes.

Thanks to mechatronics, the sky is the limit as more and more ideas will be developed to improve the way we live and work, helping satisfy the needs and wants of a complex, sophisticated, and rapidly changing world.