Mechatronics the inside story

April 1, 2007
In the early 1990s, I received a letter from a man incensed by an editorial I wrote on the subject of mechatronics. I had been promoting the concept for

In the early 1990s, I received a letter from a man incensed by an editorial I wrote on the subject of mechatronics. I had been promoting the concept for several years, and in my zeal, I must have pushed this guy over the edge. In a stinging attack, he argued that there was nothing more to “mechatronics” than word play, that the term electromechanical implied the same thing, and that my interest in the topic was evidence of my naivete.

This isn't the only time someone responded with hostility when discussing mechatronics. I can remember going in circles with a coworker who would get red in the face, insisting that mechatronics didn't exist, that it was just some made-up verbiage I latched onto.

Such is the resistance to any new concept, however, anything that causes people to realize that technology is moving faster than them. Even the vocabulary associated with it is perceived as a threat, inciting responses ranging from anger and aggression to denial and indifference.

There comes a turning point, though, in the progression of evolutionary change. When it appears fortuitous, the doubters and skeptics start singing a different tune. One day they're blocking the road, the next day they're atop the bandwagon, trying to direct it.

We are now at that point in the U.S. with regard to the adoption of mechatronics. I first realized it when I was running a web search last year on interdisciplinary design. One of the many links I followed took me to a paper co-authored by the fellow who sent me the letter. His title was Mechatronic Engineer, displayed in full-size type. Shortly after that I learned that my former coworker, who practically had a brain hemorrhage denying the existence of mechatronics, was being paid to write about it.

Every day now another untrained voice joins the chorus, hoping whatever sustains the wave they once ignored will somehow rub off on them. More likely, their presence will have a damping effect and will impede the flow of knowledge throughout the design community.

The problem with many recent converts is that they seem to think the power of mechatronics is in the word itself, rather than the design philosophy it bespeaks. Had they any appreciation of the term's underlying meaning they would have shown up to the party much sooner.

Ironically, the me-too crowd is now doing exactly what it accused others of back in the early 1990s. They are engaging in wordplay, and the more they amuse themselves, the more I'm reminded of the American Tourister commercial, where several gorillas are filmed playing excitedly with a suitcase dropped into their cage.

This will come as a shock to many late-arrivers, but mechatronics is not a chip looking for something to do on a Friday night or in an automotive engine or manufacturing process. Mechatronics is a machine function reduced to its basic mathematical and physical components and then reconstituted using whatever elements best suit the purpose. It requires someone not just fluent in multiple technologies, but fluent in blending them together, in most cases, to optimize motion.

Mechatronics starts and ends with a purpose, and the purpose is implementing a mechanical function. The challenge is not finding the right parts, it's finding the best way to put them together to seamlessly perform a particular task. This is the mechatronics I've championed for nearly two decades, and the one we will remain dedicated to long after the hairy crowds disperse to play with the next suitcase that falls into their cage.

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