Mechatronics: Not Just Something Out of Terminator

February 17, 2020 Alexandra Tranmer, CEcD

In conversations with clients and in my own professional development, I began to repeatedly hear the term mechatronics referred to as a field that was changing how manufacturers were doing business, but that more workers needed the right skill sets in order to continue growing this sector. Despite sounding like a term straight out of the Terminator movies, this is a very real sector that fuels today’s manufacturing economy, specifically Industry 4.0.

What exactly is Industry 4.0?

It refers to our current phase of production that integrates digitalization, artificial intelligence, and other technology-based systems. The use of these systems is not just an additive to an otherwise manual production, but the technology fundamentally changes how different process interact and function together.

So, what exactly is mechatronics? 

Mechatronics essentially fuses mechanical engineering, electronics and technology in the manufacturing and design industries. The knowledge base for those in mechatronics must include hydraulic and electrical processes, but also computer programming and design. For example, an employee might work with a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) in a manufacturing plant. A PLC is an industrial computer that has been programmed for automation in the manufacturing processes. PLCs have developed from highly sensitive digital tools that required specific temperatures and environments to operate to adaptive tools that withstand rough manufacturing environments with impeccable reliability. The individuals trained in mechatronics work closely with the PLC to ensure it performs up to the manufacturer’s standards, determine computer errors and use their training to ensure that production runs consistently with high productivity.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook classifies positions involving mechatronics as electro-mechanical technicians. This position’s annual median pay totals $57,790 ($27.78/hr), just below what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates is the average hourly earnings across all industries, $28.44. The greatest proportion of electro-mechanical technicians are found in the Machinery Manufacturing industry (11%), followed by Navigational, Measuring, Electromedical and Control Instruments (11%), Semiconductor and other Electronic Component Manufacturing (9%) and Engineering Services (9%). Other occupations that align with the skills possessed by an electro-mechanical technician include Photonics Technicians, Nanotechnology Engineering Technicians, Robotics Technicians, and Computer Controlled Machine Tool Operators.

What’s the outlook for Mechatronics in manufacturing?

Roles that oversee technological applications like those involved mechantronics have importance for today’s manufacturing sector as firms flex their “digital muscle” to determine optimal supply chain inputs that insulate themselves from fluctuating trade tariffs. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers also notes that predictive maintenance is something that manufacturers will be more attentive to in 2020. Proactively monitoring or preparing for machine maintenance puts companies in a more secure position, as opposed to a position where they must first react, assess the issue and then determine a course for maintenance. Beyond data collection for predictive maintenance, some leaders in the field have taken digital tools one step further to enact “smart factory” initiatives, working to build partnerships between firms in the supply chain, perhaps even competitors, data sharing in a constant feedback loop that can immediately adjust outputs.

What is the training involved?

Jobs within the mechatronics field typically require an associates’ degree or postsecondary certificate. There are also certifications for the position through the International Society of Automation and the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies.

In this field, as well as many others, the jobs are transforming at a rate quicker than what the traditional, multi-year degree can deliver. In other words, by the time an individual studies or is trained for a particular job, that job could either no longer or exist or look dramatically different, and actually require a different set of skills than what the individual originally trained for. While shorter stint training programs or certifications for specific jobs do offer a quicker paced alternative – workforce development is trending towards an emphasis on learning, adapting, and growing skill sets as opposed to formalized training for certain careers.

From this increased importance on skill sets comes the term “stackable credentials.”  The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) defines “stackable credentials” as “part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualifications and help them move along a career pathway.” For example, an individual must be skilled in digital tools, software and advanced manufacturing in order to be a competitive candidate for the occupation of an industrial machinist (an occupation within the field of mechatronics). Separately, the expertise in digital tools or advanced manufacturing would only qualify an individual for a limited set of jobs, but together, someone is qualified for a greater range of occupations, and likely a higher wage potential.

What are the implications for economic development?

How can the economic developers at the outset of this article grow or attract the supply of mechatronic-related occupations in their region if they know of, or are anticipating, a gap in the sector? Two words – data and partnerships. While economic and workforce development have become closer partners in the last decade, a partnership among professionals in these sectors is critical to assess where gaps exist before solutions can be crafted. Economic developers may be tapped into a large employer’s needs for a particular skill set because of an on-site visit for a Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) program. That information can immediately be fed into a communication system, monitoring tool or digital CRM that alerts workforce partners to this gap in workforce training. My colleague Christa Franzi details how real-time data collected through a BRE program is valuable information that should be reported and carefully tracked over time. Additional labor market data and reports from providers like Economic Modeling Specialists International (Emsi) distill complex data points from the national, regional and local levels to monitor replacement demand, emerging indemand skills, and the training programs that can prepare the workforce for the shifts in an industry.

Additionally, there are resources available to help structure the engagement required to successfully support stackable credentials. The U.S. DOL has invested in building programs that provide stackable credentials with community and technical colleges across the country. Developing these programs requires frequent and ongoing communication with employers about developing technologies and skills that are increasingly required to remain competitive in their fields. Additionally, The Center for Occupational Research and Development has also developed a Stackable Credentials Tool Kit that offers a play by play of how economic development officials can initiate conversations with the appropriate stakeholders to evaluate pilot programs and ensure that graduates are prepared for the local and regional workforce.

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Cover photo: Adobe Spark, via source: Pixabay