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Special Report
Interdisciplinary Activities and Programs

 April 1998


Mechatronics kitMechatronics - It's All In The Interface

· A farm equipment manufacturer is developing machinery that can map soil level and quality throughout a field, then determine the most efficient planting and irrigation patterns.

· A new fire detector, using fiber optic sensors that detect flames at a location, avoids false alarms by analyzing the infrared signature of a heat source, phones the local fire department, and plays evacuation messages for occupants.

· A spray nozzle is under development that uses a special control circuit that stores pump characteristics, measures pressure drop and surge, and maintains an even flow rate regardless of the main water pressure. Such nozzles could improve efficiency in irrigation and the use of outdoor spray chemicals.

Every week more products are introduced with "smart" features made possible by embedded microprocessors. The trend is here to stay, according to Will Saunders, a mechanical engineering professor. "Computer architecture and innovation have advanced so far, so fast, that we can now imbed decision-making inside almost every device and process," he said.

It is also changing the way that systems and devices are designed, and spawning a new engineering field. "When companies first started incorporating microprocessor technology into their products, they would naturally create a team with mechanical engineers who understood the mechanism and electrical or computer engineers who understood the computer technology," explained John Bay, an electrical engineering professor and specialist in robotics. "However, they soon found that there was more to it than that. They needed expertise in the actual interface of the two technologies.

lego car photo"For example," he continued, "it takes some well-tailored electrical signals to drive certain mechanical actuators. Very often, the mechanical engineers weren't aware of the limitations on the signals coming from the microcontroller and the computer people wouldn't appreciate what the actuator and the mechanics really needed. The issue might not be recognized until the prototype was built."

From such experiences has grown a knowledge base and design process that has been dubbed, "mechatronics." As its name implies, mechatronics involves a blurring of the traditional mechanical and electrical/computer engineering fields. "Mechatronics focuses on the synergism between actuators, sensors, controls, computer architecture, software, and knowledge of the dynamic system," Saunders explained. "Mechatronics involves a wide range of interdisciplinary skills. It's actually come about because mechanical and electrical engineering have become so specialized that engineers no longer focus on the whole system. We need a breed of dedicated individuals to remain broad-based, who can understand the interface between the two fields."

With engineers who understand the issues involved, companies can develop "smart" products much more efficiently and cost-effectively, Bay said.

Due to the efforts of Saunders, Bay, and Charles Reinholtz, a mechanical engineering professor, Virginia Tech is one of only a dozen universities across the country that teaches mechatronics. In the fall of 1996, they teamed up to develop a senior-level introduction to the field for electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering students. Since then, the course has become a permanent offering by both departments.

Tech's mechatronics course is structured as a lecture/project course. The three faculty members each present lectures in their own area of expertise. Instead of a textbook, students purchase a specially designed kit of components, which they use during the first weeks to build and test their own microprocessor control board. "Mechatronics at any level is hardware and lab oriented," Bay explained. "It lies more on the technological side of engineering, rather than the theoretical."

There is little traditional homework, but each week students work in the laboratory on a variety of projects. They also are required to complete a semester-long project in a multidisciplinary team, using the microcontroller boards they have built. Past projects have included a pill sorter and dispenser, an automatic blind adjuster, a bottle conveyer belt, alarm system, and AC induction motor controller.

Teaching engineering students with such diverse backgrounds is challenging, Bay admitted. "We need to cover some material for the ME students that the EEs should already know, and vice versa," he said. "However, there is more in the course for both groups. We can't teach the field by just sending EEs over to take ME courses and MEs to take EE courses. They would still miss the essence of mechatronics."

The Bradley Department
of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Virginia Tech

Last Updated, May 10, 1998
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