It is NOT a combination of mechanical and electronics engineering, surprisingly!
About a month ago, when I readily handed in my answer script for the examination paper on Power Electronics, it marked the end of my degree in Mechatronic Engineering. Well, at least in my own terms. This degree took a solid 4 years and the next phase of life is just by the door. Today, let me break it down to you what studying Mechatronic Engineering is like in 10 minutes. Surprise, surprise!
Disclaimer: I didn’t write this piece because I took the course, but because I believe there are some misconceptions about mechatronic engineering that people need to know and that I have experienced it, it may be useful to some of you out there.
Four years ago, I would have never thought I would come to a point writing back as a graduate on the experience of a freshman. Surely there was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about everything, but the courage and determination to explore and put myself out there was slowly built up from this point. I made my first friend on my way to my first class, where we both didn’t know where the lecture hall was. The next thing I remember was that we were expected to get familiar with the class schedule the next day and be ready for the university “life” as we all know it — basically assignments, midterms and projects. This “life” didn’t sound as bad, but it definitely wasn’t the one portrayed on TVs.
I just had this conversation with a friend of mine the other day, when we spoke on the expectations we had on university life. Throughout our primary and secondary school here in Malaysia, we were expected to score as best as we could in any paper. University came and that piece of advice would simply turn into “As long as you don’t fail, that’s a job well done!”. Four years later, I guess this piece of advice still stands strong among many people, because on top of getting good grades, being in university means so much more than just that — you would want to expand your network and make more friends than enemies, you would want to explore and experience a little bit more to clearly know what you no like, you would want to learn how to deal with people and projects and of course the many social rules that being in university could teach you. The best thing about this is that there is no second take!
As long as you don’t fail, that’s a job well done!
Like some universities, we had to plan out our own academic schedule in terms of which subjects to take for each semester in order to graduate ON TIME. But of course, any failed subject would mean additional semester(s) and a delayed graduation. The subjects in the first year mean a lot to any engineering student in my opinion as they form the foundation of understanding to the more difficult topics later on. I have to say, I struggled and made sure I studied enough to understand them. We had:
- Basics of electronics (Digital/Analogue Electronics, Circuit Theory etc.)
- Basics of mechanics/physics (Engineering statics etc.)
- Math (Calculus, Mathematical Methods for Engineers etc.)
Yes, they are a mix of subjects from the mechanical engineering side and the electrical and electronics (E&E) engineering side. They make up our understanding of general engineering before delving into projects that utilize knowledge from both sides. Surely, I didn’t take ALL the subjects from the mechanical/E&E engineering side, and I totally understand why some people disregard us as true engineers since we know less of both the mechanical or the E&E engineering knowledge. Regardless, we still went through the foundational first year like every other engineering student, complete with the necessary basic knowledge.
Just like that, the first year flashed right in front of my eyes and the next thing I knew was that I was expected to bear more responsibilities. This means taking on positions in engineering related clubs/societies, or overseeing engineering projects at the university scale.
After familiarizing myself with the new culture, schedules and circle of friends, it was time to truly experience the university night life. No, not parties, of course!
With engineering, it would only be practical to get into some clubs or initiatives where you could practice and hone your engineering skills to at least have something to show on your resume and at most to make significant contributions while learning. This was the time I got into an initiative called Initiative Z, the founder of which made it such that the initiative caters to engineering projects concerning environmental problems, or more specifically to turn the campus into a zero-waste campus. From there, I put my engineering skills to test and learn a lot along the journey.
If you have previously read my articles, there was this project on the Reverse Vending Machine (RVM) where the idea was to build a vending machine designed to take in and process recyclable materials on the spot, giving substantially useful rewards to participating students. Basically, students from different fields of engineering came together to make it work and this is the time we learned how to work together in an engineering project, without prior knowledge on how the coordination should work among teams from different fields.
Honestly, the subjects I took in my second year were not that far off from those in Year 1. However, they were definitely more difficult and they required more effort, which means less parties. The subjects were:
- More electronics (Advanced Circuit Theory and Transmission Lines etc.)
- More mechanics/physics (Fluid mechanics/dynamics, Thermodynamics etc.)
- More math (Numerical analysis etc.)
In addition to the subjects above, we also learned some software and programming, in the hope of catching up on the other “true” engineering fields. From here, I think it is fair to say that mechatronic engineering students have the ability to put together systems combining knowledge from either the mechanical side, the electrical/electronic side or the software side. This is definitely not a comparison with other engineering fields as all projects require teamwork to get things done and none is more “superior” than the other. With that said, year 2 was the year I got my foundational knowledge rooted in by taking part in real-world projects.
In Year 3, the only thing I looked forward to was the internship. For engineering students in my university, we are required to do two internships and so I would panic and start searching for one month before the official email would advise us to. It was also the time where my skills were going to be validated by the industry and so I did my best for each interview I could get. But then, I was still pretty much unsure of what I wanted in terms of my career and the role that I would like. I guess that’s a significant benefit of having two internships because then by the second internship, I would have expected myself to know the career path to go for.
Now, at this point, you might be wondering if the subjects in Year 3 were at least different from those in the first two years to make Mechatronic Engineering slightly different from the rest, but to tell you the truth, the subjects were only more challenging . Here’s why:
- More electronics (Microprocessor systems, Digital Electronics II etc.)
- More mechanics/physics (Fluid Power, Stress Analysis and Design etc.)
- Systems (Robotics, Control Systems, Manufacturing Processes etc.)
The third item was definitely the fun part of the entire course as it combines knowledge from different disciplines and it was the first sliver of taste that we could get of real mechatronic engineering, fusing the mechanical designs, the electronic components and the written software into one complete functional system. But yes, they were all in theory and the applications of them were very much hindered by lockdown restrictions during the pandemic. Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Simulations, simulations and simulations.
What changed notably during the pandemic in terms of classes was that they were conducted online without a doubt. Lab sessions had to be conducted in a different way and needlessly to say, they were not as exciting as in-person lab sessions are. Simulations, simulations and simulations. At the end of the day, we barely made anything using real hardware and that was the toughest part of the journey considering this is engineering we are talking about and being able to work with hardware is essential. Looking on the bright side, there was remarkably more time to sit in front of the computer and hence many of us doubled down on learning software and programming as a way to make up for the lack of hands-on experience with hardware.
As a result, part of my internship was from the office which cut off a lot of the social interaction needed to learn and complete certain tasks. I did my best however. Not only was the internship affected, my tenure as the President of the Robotics and AI Club of the university didn’t make as significant an impact as I would want to since all the events had to be held online. Again, I did my best.
Then, in Year 4, it seemed as though somebody flipped a switch and everything turned up a level and university was suddenly in hard mode. Besides normal classes, in came two crucial projects. The two highlights of the year were the capstone project and the final year project (FYP). Classes were still held online and we basically had to fight off the urge to sleep during classes.
The capstone project was one of the best highlights as it was easily the project you would measure the skills of a mechatronic engineering student, or any engineering student. We were tasked to make a Covid-19 quarantine center meal delivery robot and ironically because of Covid-19, the in-person demo was canceled and no hardware was required. In spite of that, we told ourselves to make the physical version of the robot using whatever we had, putting a very much-needed skill to test in building out a robot under strict requirements. We took part in every step of the design and analysis, up until the assembly of it that eventually won us the best capstone project.
Moving on to the FYP, the individual project was another test for students as it basically involved the entire project like the capstone project, but only with yourself to plan, design, analyze, build and evaluate. With one year to execute the plan, I made sure there was ample time to make mistakes because what’s there to engineer if there aren’t mistakes to be made? For sure, I made mistakes and the only person to be held accountable was myself, but with the help of many lecturers, the project was another story of not only success, but of sleepless nights and bold effort.
Remember the second internship that I mentioned? Because of the programming skills I picked up during the pandemic, specifically in computer vision, I managed to land an internship doing computer vision tasks at a data company. I wrote an entire article here about the internship and I hope it inspires anyone who is into this field in working towards it. But with the capstone project, FYP and the internship complete, it means I’m closer to graduating as a mechatronic engineering student.
The thing about being a mechatronic engineering student is that you will have accumulated a wide range of skills from mechanical designs, electronics circuit design and software development that enable you to work on any part of an engineering project after these four years. However, the path in front of me is clearly an unknown, even with the options laid out. As such, I would consider this the time to take a step back and listen to myself deeply what I want for myself before jumping to any conclusions.
I hope I have done a great job at sharing what mechatronic engineering is like in these four years, at least with what I have experienced. It simply does not mean every mechatronic engineering course out there looks the same, and it will definitely over time “shape-shift” in order to fit the needs of times. There are a lot more that I couldn’t fit here, and to this I’d say it is best you experience it yourself if you are already taking the course. I hope this article also gives you an idea what you will be getting yourself into and may prepare you for what’s coming and may you strive for excellence along the way up.
End note: Considering I am now unemployed, I will want to take some time off on writing and shift my attention to job-hunting, which involves more writing. See you in my next article soon!