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Mechatronics Education in Mechanical Engineering

Low-cost sensors, actuators, electronics and computer technology have helped shift the design of high-tech and household products from the purely mechanical domain only a few decades ago to the multidisciplinary domain that it is today. Mechatronics is the design discipline that addresses this multidisciplinary need.

Mechatronics is the synergetic integration of mechanical systems, electronics, controls, and computers in the design of high performance systems. Most modern products – automobiles, household appliances, personal transportation devices, digital cameras, printers, scanners, hard-disk drives, surgical tools, to name a few – embody numerous 'intelligent' or 'smart' features enabled by mechatronics.

Consequently, mechatronics is now a central component of design education in the Department Mechanical Engineering. The department annually offers a graduate course in Mechatronic Systems Design (ME552), taught by Professor Brent Gillespie and Assistant Professor Shorya Awtar.

The course learning objectives include hardware skills related to machine elements and assembly, sensors, actuators, drivers, signal conditioning, circuits, and microprocessors, coupled with the underlying engineering fundamentals of design, multi-domain modeling, control theory and electronics. Throughout the course, emphasis is placed on system integration – bringing together knowledge from various fields and using it in a systematic fashion to design, build and test a complex engineering system. The course follows a studio-style instructional format with emphasis on periodic design reviews, teamwork, and self- and peer-learning.

In Fall 2007, Awtar taught the class and challenged student teams to build two-wheel balancing scooters from scratch – in eight weeks and with a $1,750 budget – for their class project. By the end of the term each team successfully built a full-size, fully-functional balancing scooter (like the Segway), all of which were showcased at the U-M Design Expo. (Course video is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ILC43priX4) In 2008 Gillespie challenged teams to generate new technologies for enabling communication between among users of portable and handheld devices. Then in 2009 each team built a new electronic musical instrument that featured programmable haptic response to complement the audio response.

Gillespie and Awtar have also added thematic sections on mechatronics to ME450 (Design and Manufacturing III), the department's capstone design class. Furthermore, Awtar has revised the junior level ME350 (Design and Manufacturing III) to add a mechatronics portion to the class, to cover sensors and actuators in addition to traditional machine elements.

Awtar and Gillespie have recently secured funding from the College of Engineering to establish a new state-of-the-art Mechatronics Instructional Lab to serve the undergraduate and graduate design courses in the department.

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