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What is mechatronic engineering?

What is mechatronic engineering?Many universities are now offering courses in mechatronic engineering. But what is it? Mechatronic engineer Michael Chandler gives you the lowdown.

Mechatronic engineering is a hybrid of electronic, electrical and mechanical engineering. The term was first used in 1969 in Japan, but has only become more common in the last twenty years, as traditional mechanical products became increasingly governed by electronic and computer control.

For example, a traditional car was almost entirely mechanical in nature, with the engine, gearbox, drive shafts and wheels. The only electrical components were the windscreen wipers, the starter motor and lights. A modern car, however, has a myriad of sensors which warn the user of potential faults with the car, whilst aids such as traction control have become standard.

Mechatronic engineering courses

The first British university to offer a mechatronic engineering course was Lancaster University, in 1984. Since than, several other universities have started mechatronics courses. Some are accredited BEng or MEng degrees, whilst some are HNDs. The course varies from university to university. Some put more emphasis on the electronics, some the mechanical engineering, and some mechatronic courses focus more on software and computing.

Should I study mechatronic engineering?

A mechatronic engineering degree is ideal for someone who would like a broad knowledge of engineering. Some choose it because they would like their career to progress into management, or simply because they would rather not specialise in any particular discipline. There is almost no product in the world that is solely electronic, electrical or mechanical in nature. This means that the lines between each discipline are becoming increasingly blurred, and there is a growing demand for engineers whose knowledge is strong across all of these areas.

An accredited mechatronic engineering course offers the unique opportunity to become chartered with two institutions: the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET - formerly the Institute of Electrical Engineers) or the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. Becoming a chartered engineer is the best way to demonstrate your competency and commitment to your profession, and the opportunity to choose which institute you would like to become chartered with (you could even pursue chartership with both!) is unique to Mechatronic engineering.

What does your job involve?

I am an electrical engineer with RWE npower - a company that generates and sells electricity, amongst other things. I am currently working with the Operations Team for the Rhyl Flats and North Hoyle Offshore Wind Farms in North Wales. The North Hoyle Wind farm is completed and operational; Rhyl Flats is under construction.

Constructing wind farms

Since joining I have been involved with a variety of tasks as we prepare to resume construction of Rhyl Flats. Construction stops during the winter, because of the weather and also so we don't interfere with a species of bird which migrates between December and March. My roles have included assisting with purchasing safety clothing, producing the new site safety video and investigating the equipment used to perform an emergency descent from the top of a turbine, to decide whether the equipment is safe to use.

Researching control systems

My main task, however, is to research the two different types of control systems used on the turbines, and produce a document detailing the strengths and weaknesses of each system, so that we are more aware of how the systems work and how they might fail. Also, the document will be used to assist with deciding which type of turbine will be preferred for future offshore wind farms, such as Gwynt y Mor.

I will also be assisting with inspections on the North Hoyle wind turbines. This means going out to sea and getting inside the nacelle (the top part of the turbine) 80 metres (around 40 stories) above sea level!