The last decade saw the emergence of two technologies that seemed to come out of nowhere.
The first was the internet of things – using the internet to connect sensors and devices for a range of consumer and business purposes. The other was artificial intelligence – or a specific type of machine learning where computers could, for the first time, reliably recognise real-world objects using vast troves of data. Combined, these technologies make the development of industry 4.0 in the 2020s almost inevitable.
For mechatronics engineers, the entire landscape has changed considerably. Go back just five years, and the idea of imbuing robots with machine intelligence that had practical application might have seemed cutting edge. Now it’s a mainstream reality: something that companies are doing right now.
Mechatronic engineers, therefore, will have to take up the slack in the coming decade. As the technology becomes more compelling, companies will need people with multidisciplinary skills who not only understand the hardware but the software that drives it too.
Manufacturing Moves Into New Areas
Manufacturing engineers will be playing a constant game of catch-up over the next ten years. Enterprises will need people who understand the intersection of various advanced technologies (such as 3D mapping, digital sensing networks and AI-powered computer vision) to develop solutions to business problems that put companies at a competitive advantage.
The main goal of the technology will be to save labour. Companies will seek opportunities to develop human-like intelligence that will take over cognitive tasks currently administered by their workforces. Engineers will become foundational to leveraging technology platforms to deliver sensing and data collection capability to firms, allowing them to automate processes that previously required a human in the loop.
The application of sensors will likely be universal. Already, researchers have developed sensors the size of bees that can track the movement patterns of animals without interfering with their ability to survive. Now we could see those same tech being used in industry 4.0, providing up-to-the-minute information on the health of machinery, field conditions for crops, and proximity sensors for mobile robots.
Mechatronics engineering will feature heavily at the systems level, organising interconnected production structures that communicate with each other in real-time. If the world is to adopt the grand vision of industry 4.0, then it will need people who understand how the various components work together.
Manufacturing engineers will need to be involved in a wide variety of technological frontiers. Top of their list of priorities will be finding ways of using sensors, networks and data to optimise logistics and supply chains. Connected systems could automatically react to sensor data fed to them from vehicles in transit or suppliers at the source. If the weather delays the shipment of inputs, the factories could use industry 4.0 networks to adjust their schedules automatically.
Engineers will also be required to oversee the integration of additive manufacturing tech into current factory processes. As the resolution of 3D printers continues to improve, companies will require people who can integrate solutions with customer portals and the rest of the supply chain. By the end of the 2020s, consumers may be able to print out custom-designed products via the internet on demand. Companies looking for small runs of goods or prototypes will also be able to do the same.
The cloud is the lynchpin of the entire industry 4.0 project. It provides every element in the supply chain with the ability to communicate with every other in real-time, whether it is a sensor on a vehicle or a manager at a warehouse. With everyone in the network able to collect data, analyse it and make decisions, companies will be able to leverage their insights and adapt to changes in their circumstances fat. Mechatronics, therefore, will continue to rely heavily on the cloud as the scaffold on which to drape interconnected solutions. The cloud makes real-time reporting, logistics, and automation more manageable.
What precisely the next decade of mechatronics will bring is uncertain. For people who like to predict the future, though, the writing is on the wall: all of the required technologies to make industry 4.0 happen are already here. We just need engineers to make it happen.
Increasing Demand For Mechatronics Engineers Across A Variety Of Industries
Discipline-based approaches to learning mean that a lot of humanity’s knowledge of advanced technologies is heavily siloed. Some people understand the nuances of artificial intelligence, 3D mapping, sensors and robotics individually, but rarely together.
For the economy to progress, however, businesses will need to find ways of combining these technologies to create more efficient and automated systems. Home assistants like Amazon Alexa are helpful, but disembodied intelligence can only take us so far. We need innovations that combine and recombine these technologies to deliver their full value.
Mechatronics engineers, therefore, will likely be in massive demand. The two sectors where the value-add of cross-disciplinary approaches is highest are the autonomous vehicle industry and in factory automation. Once market leaders in these sectors make the first moves towards fully automated solutions by the middle of the next decade, traditional car manufacturers will rush to grab whatever talent remains.
The same will likely occur in the factory sector. Deep-learning will permit robot technology to expand from its current stronghold in the auto sector into practically every manufacturing operation that requires some form of manual handling. Thus, firms will need mechatronics engineers who understand use-cases for robots and where companies should deploy them first.
Later in the decade, we could see the role of mechatronics engineers expanding even more in new areas of transportation and logistics. If regulations change to allow the use of autonomous ships and planes, for instance, there could be a dramatic rise in demand for skilled systems integrators in the aviation and shipping industries. Businesses will need to step up their workforce planning efforts, looking for opportunities to source people with the engineering skills that they need to make fully automated technologies a reality.
Support from Mechatronic Experts
In the short term, rather than attempting to recruit mechatronics engineers, the easiest and cheapest solution for many businesses will be to outsource the mechatronics specialism by working with companies who have that expertise. This could have a number of advantages, including:
- Potentially far lower costs than employing staff
- Take advantage of expertise and experience
- No long term commitment – ideal for projects
- Much bigger team available when needed
- Access to specialist knowledge and resources
- Development costs are external
Food for thought…
Established in 1988, Mechatronic Solutions (Mechatronic Production Systems Ltd) offer high tech automation solutions to a wide range of manufacturers. As well as bespoke automation machinery, the company also created the innovative Robopod®, a reconfigurable system with a standardised platform which is endlessly adaptable to the client’s requirements.
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