Automation Training Workforce

Do You Have a Mechatronics Tech?

EP Editorial Staff | January 20, 2020

Maintaining today’s robotics and automated systems requires a skillset offered by a new type of technician.

By Andrew Ruse, Accruent

The rise of robotics is changing the way manufacturers operate, how they support their plant environments, and the skillsets they need. With fewer human-operated assembly lines, highly automated machinery and robots are increasingly the keys to keeping domestic manufacturing plants competitive in the global market.

In the past, an MRO team member with specialized knowledge in an area such as conveyor-belt systems might be fully utilized handling work orders for the repair and refurbishment of such systems. Now, however, MRO jobs are more complex with conveyance systems integrated with robots having six-axis arms controlled by PLCs, as well as interfaces into numerous other electronic, hydraulic, and pneumatic systems. 

As factories have phased-in automation, they’ve organically grown the MRO skillsets by cross-training experienced people grounded in distinct specializations such as electronics, instrumentation, mechanical, or power systems. But those people, with their home-grown knowledge, are leaving through retirement or being poached by other high-tech factories. That leaves a distinct skills gap that is difficult to fill and is likely to get worse. Mechatronics technicians can help.

“When I started out in my career at a GM factory, each technician had a specific trade or set of skills: electrician, pipefitter, millwright, and so on,” said Wayne Ellington, Maintenance Supervisor at a major automotive company. “Today’s multi-craft maintenance worker is much more productive. You no longer need six different people to change out a piece of rotating equipment.”

Mechatronics defined

Mechatronics is a new discipline that defines workers who have multiple skills across multiple crafts. For those who resist the newly coined term, other ways of describing the same phenomenon include advanced integrated manufacturing, integrated systems technology, industrial and electrical maintenance, or robotics and automation. Mechatronics encompasses most, if not all, of the following skillsets: mechanical, electrical, pneumatics, motor control, hydraulics, programmable logic control (PLC), robotics, high-speed communications, and maintenance software.

Sourcing techs

Where do you find mechatronics technicians? Community colleges and technical training centers across the country are tapping into this trend, tailoring programs and turning out graduates with this hybrid skillset. The workers they train are equipped to enter the workforce and meet the challenges of maintaining today’s plant floor. These mechatronics techs can perform ongoing maintenance, know what spare parts are needed, execute work orders turned out by factory CMMS systems, and deconstruct and rebuild industrial robotic equipment when necessary.

An example of such a school is the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT), which has 27 campuses across the state. They developed a mechatronics program in the past decade to support the new wave of highly automated factories opening in the state, with instructors passing on knowledge of maintenance best practices and providing real-world experience through co-op and apprenticeship programs. The graduates earn associates degrees or technical certificates and strong income potential, with starting annual salaries between $55k and $70k.

Optimizing the plant

This new field of mechatronics is not just for the factory-floor worker executing CMMS work orders. The field is also growing at the four-year-degree level, with mechatronics-trained engineers entering the workforce. These engineers go beyond break/fix/service to focus on plant-wide optimization in areas such as product quality, solving recurring problems, supply-chain management, warranty reduction, and root-cause analyses.

Mechatronic engineers are also optimizing plants by creating tighter links with their production departments. After analyzing data from their robots, PLCs, hydraulics, and pneumatics, the engineer might conclude a line needs five hours of preventive maintenance each week to achieve maximum utilization. With a holistic approach, an expert engineer can enhance his or her relationship with the production crew by giving them plenty of advanced notice to perform scheduled maintenance, thus minimizing overall downtime and increasing line productivity.

Higher education institutions such as Middle Tennessee State, Murfreesboro, and Indiana Univ., Bloomington, offer four-year engineering degrees in mechatronics.

Mechatronics schools

While mechatronics is a newly created field, there are a number of schools already specializing in it including:

• Alexandria Technical and Community College, Alexandria, MN
Indiana University, Bloomington
Lanier Technical College, Gainesville, GA
Tennessee College of Applied Technology, Memphis
Western Piedmont Community College, Morganton, NC
Kentucky Community & Technical College System, Versailles
West Virginia Northern Community College, Wheeling
West Shore Community College, Scottville, MI
Wichita Technical College, Wichita, KS
Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, WA.

If you’re not in one of these areas, check with your local community colleges and technical schools about their associate degree and technical certificate offerings using any of the following terms: automation, industrial maintenance, integrated manufacturing, mechatronics, or robotics. You also might look for community colleges or technical institutes aligned with the Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME), Washington (fame-usa.com). Wayne Ellington has a tip for finding the very cream of the crop of mechatronics technicians. “Look for competitors in, or winners of, the Skills USA programs. Skills USA, Leesburg, VA (skillsusa.org), is a global program with state-level competitions for a wide range of skills for students in high school and community college.” EP

Andrew Ruse is President at Accruent LLC, Austin, TX (accruent.com). His background is in industrial software sales and business operations. He joined Accruent through the acquisition of Maintenance Connection. Ruse also handled sales and marketing for Ivanti, including assignments in North America, China, and Europe.

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