Under Control


Tesuro Mori, a Yaskawa Electric executive, coined the term Machatronics in 1969. The idea is to combine the concepts used in electronics, mechanics, computers, and electrics into a single system. This system can be applied to everyday products that themselves are combined applications of these separate disciplines. For example, Mechatronics applies to cameras, cars, planes, robots copiers, cellular phones, and ATMs. A formal definition might be the "application of embedded complex decision-making to the operation of physical systems." There are many others. Basically, I know one when I see it.

The National Science Foundation invited your intrepid columnist to a conference hosted by Tai-Ran Hsu of the San Jose State University. The NSF envisions a global think tank centered around strategies focused on education, products, and manufacturing, with Mechatronics as one of the touchstones. Some see program eventually developing into an international consortium like the Brooking Institute for political studies.

Besides Americans, the attendees were from the Pacific Rim. At the first session, your intrepid columnist had the temerity to question the purpose and objectives of the workshop. I have gotten my wide posterior from attending many such workshops, and too many of them turn out to be "porkshops."

I learned that the real purpose of the conference was to gain respect for the term "mechatronics," which is used very little in America. A few mechanical engineering departments do take a system approach, but most don't. Consequently, a majority of the conference's purpose was educational.

The real issue at hand, however, is larger than Mechatronics. The problem we all must address isn't a lack of emphasis on Mechatronics, because that's only part of it. What really needs to be emphasized - and even promoted - is education itself.

The propensity to give out jackets that recognize, and even celebrate, athletic ability and not intellectual ability is at the core of the issue. If you're bored or rebellious in class, you're told "don't be a wise guy." Engineering enrollment is far behind demand. And what does practicing engineer end up doing anyway? We attend meetings. We read "Dilbert." We argue budgets. Living in a cubicle and arguing in meetings is not my idea of creative engineering.

I personally believe that more of the engineering curriculum should be devoted to subjects such as the history of technology (been there, done that); business issues (emphasizing the goal of profit); the who, what, when, where, and how of technology (today we only do the "how"); and to learning to hear the music. For real success in engineering, our education must ensure that at least some of us are unreasonable. As Shaw stated, all progress depends on unreasonable men.

Perhaps the Mechatronics conference and workshops will help contribute to that.

The agenda for the next conference was also a point of discussion. Some "classicists" among us wanted to be sure and talk about product development, human resources, manufacturing development, and service/maintenance. Luckily, several of the people attending have actually been actively working in the 1990s so we insisted that few modern topics, like enterprise systems and execution systems, also discussed.

On the other hand, there was considerable talk about the Internet, and we all promised to link our home pages.

The next conference will be in Japan, perhaps in February, with a theme of "Globalized Local Manufacturing Network for Mechatronics."

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine November 1996 Page 104

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