The Need for Interdisciplinary Education
Many engineered products and processes are developed by integrating multiple technologies into a problem solution . These technologies often span a variety of disciplines, thereby increasing the complexities of design problems faced by engineers. If an engineering design team is composed of individuals trained in the classic disciplines (mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering …), it will be difficult to provide the best design solution for interdisciplinary problems . Mechatronics advances the ideas of interaction further with interdisciplinary thinking by individual engineers in addition to the multi-disciplinary team approaches. Tomizuka  supports this conclusion by stating “Mechatronics may be interpreted as the best practice for the synthesis of engineering systems”. Kevin Craig, Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, states: "Mechatronics does not change the design process. It gives the engineer greater knowledge, so the concepts that are developed are better, and communication with other engineering disciplines is improved. The result is a highly balanced design ."
Van Brussel, a robotics researcher, also supports mechatronics interdisciplinary education. In the IEEE/ASME Transactions on Mechatronics, Van Brussel wrote: "In the past, machine and product design has, almost exclusively, been the preoccupation of mechanical engineers. Solutions to control and programming problems were added by control and software engineers, after the machine had been designed by mechanical engineers. This sequential-engineering approach usually resulted in suboptimal designs. Recently, machine design has been profoundly influenced by the evolution of microelectronics, control engineering, and computer science. What is needed, as a solid basis for designing high-performance machines, is a synergistic cross-fertilization between the different engineering disciplines. This is exactly what mechatronics is aiming at; it is a concurrent-engineering view of machine design ."
The lack of interdisciplinary education and its importance are claimed by Mayer-Krahmer . Studies discussed by Mayer-Krahmer have concluded that technology should not be separated into the discrete classic disciplines. Mechatronic innovations are often stimulated from an integrated discipline approach as opposed to the composite of disparate disciplines . The full potential of interdisciplinary solutions results from bridging the gap between product technologies and engineering disciplines . In other studies by: 1) Association of American Colleges and Universities 2002 ; 2) National Research Council 2002 , 3) National Research Council 2003a ; 4) National Research Council 2003b ; and 5) Project Kaleidoscope 2002 ; science and engineering educators are urged to move toward more interdisciplinary education.
Mechatronics Engineering - The Need in Industry
The National Science Board (NSB) publishes Science and Engineering Indicators for the U.S. every two years. The NSB observed alarming trends in the data published in Indicators 2004 and published a companion report . Quoting the observations in the report: “we have observed a troubling decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers, whereas the number of jobs requiring science and engineering (S&E) training continues to grow.” The report editors were compelled to issue a warning: “These trends threaten the economic welfare and security of our country.” A previously published report NSB 03-69, 2003 drew similar conclusions. The NSB report estimates the number of U.S. jobs requiring S&E skills is growing about 5% per year, compared to a 1% growth for the rest of the labor force. Concern is also expressed over foreign competition. The NSB states that other countries have made increased S&E education investments at higher rates than the U.S.
The State of Georgia is ranked 42nd in the number of natural science and engineering bachelor’s degrees conferred per 1,000 population of 18-24 year-olds, as shown in Figure 1. Mechatronics engineering is obtaining an increasing level of interest among college bound students. Indications of this are discussed under “Student Demand for a Mechatronics Engineering Degree.” Providing a B.S. degree in Mechatronics Engineering will help to improve Georgia’s role in supplying future engineers to meet industry’s need.
Siemens Energy and Automation (SE&A), a subsidiary of Siemens AG, is committed to undergraduate mechatronics education because of their job force needs. SE&A has corporate headquarters in Alpharetta, Georgia and employs 9400 people in 31 manufacturing, assembly, and distribution facilities, 8 regional sales offices, and 100+ area sales offices. Of these employees, 3,250 reside and work in the metropolitan Atlanta area. Siemens AG employs 26,000 people in 153 facilities nation wide. Globally, Siemens employs more than 30,000 software engineers and 103,000 scientists and engineers. SE&A has issued a $225,000 grant to SPSU in support of this proposal. Tom Kopanski, Vice President and General Manager of the Automation and Motion Division of SE&A, has provided a strong commitment to the BSMtrE degree program. They have also donated approximately $250,000 in laboratory equipment, including a plastic injection molding system, nine manufacturing automation training systems, and provided SIMATIC Step7 automation and control software tools for the SPSU Computer-Integrated Manufacturing Laboratory. Rick Meyers, SE&A’s Vice President of Business Development, said he would have hired 20 Mechatronics Engineers in each of the last 2 years, if he could have found them. Instead, they have hired mechanical and electrical engineers and then put them through intensive internal training courses.
As previously discussed, Mechatronics Engineering will lead to more technological innovations due to interdisciplinary thinking. An example of this can be found by looking at the packing machinery industry. The Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute is a trade association whose more than 500 members manufacture packaging and packaging-related converting machinery in the United States and Canada. U.S. packaging machinery shipments reached $5.344 billion in 2004, a 9.3 percent increase over 2003. Two reasons cited for this growth are: 1) increased emphasis on expanding packaging line automation when customers added fully automatic or semi automatic machines where none had been before or upgraded from semi-automated to fully automated machinery and 2) demand creation through a favorable market reception to technological innovation and new model design. Primary benefits gained from the advanced technology were increased speed and output, higher efficiency, expanded flexibility, improved product handling, greater accuracy, simpler control, and more versatile handling through robotics .
Douglas Machine, a PMMI member, manufactures complex packaging machines and is a regional partner of the Center for Automation and Motion Control (CAMC) in Alexandria, MN. Douglas has stated that their competitors in Germany and Italy are benefiting from an earlier commitment by their industries and their governments’ support for a mechatronic curriculum. Advancing beyond the mechanical timing paradigms of the past, Mechatronic Engineers are able to design and manufacture the “next generation” of advanced packaging machines . “It's quite possible that within the next five years, there won't be a machine made that doesn't use mechatronics in some aspect of its operation,” says Dr. Ken Ryan, director of the CAMC . In April 2003, Keith Campbell, Executive Director of the Open Modular Architecture Controls (OMAC) Packaging Workgroup, stated “many of our members believe that the USA lags behind European countries in the development of machines based upon these technological advances .” OMAC is a 500 member organization founded in 1997 by manufacturing technology leaders in automotive, aerospace and related metalworking industries through which companies work together to promote development and adoption of open automation controls.
The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) conducted studies in 1997, 1999, and 2002 to determine competency gaps between manufacturing industry’s workforce needs and what is provided by educational programs. Manufacturing Systems and Manufacturing Process Control are two high priority competency gaps identified in each study and were earmarked for focus in the 2005 Manufacturing Education Plan . A Mechatronics Engineering graduate will have knowledge of and be capable of applying engineering principles for design, modeling, and implementation of manufacturing automation systems and manufacturing process control. Availability of graduates in Mechatronics Engineering will help industry reduce the identified critical competency gaps.
The next few years will witness a continued demand for engineering jobs. "There is this myth that the last thing you should do is go into engineering," says Diana Farrell, head of McKinsey Global Institute (MGI). "But the underlying growth of demand for engineers is so great that even when you consider the potential of offshoring, there will be demand in the U.S .” MGI was founded in 1990 to research critical economic issues facing businesses and governments around the world.
Tim Foutz, a professor and undergraduate engineering program coordinator in the University of Georgia, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said "According to national data, engineering and technical jobs are increasing at five times the rate of any other work force. A lot of current engineers are reaching retirement age. Plus, the United States imports 12-15 percent of its engineers, and Georgia is at the lead of that trend. The demand for engineers is there.” .
Thomas S. Moore, general manager for technical affairs at Chrysler Corporation in Madison Heights, Michigan was quoted as saying "I believe that mechanical engineers with a mechatronics background will have a better chance of becoming managers. We see mechatronics as the career of the future for mechanical engineers." 
John F. Elter, vice president of strategic programs at Xerox Corp. in Webster, N.Y believes "Classically trained mechanical engineers will run the risk of being left out of the interesting work. At Xerox, we need designers who understand the control theory well enough to synthesize a better design. These people will have much more of a chance to lead. One possibility is that the mechatronics practitioner will prototype the whole design, then the specialists in the various disciplines will take over the detail design."