Mechatronics: High Tech Careers for Hands-on People

Kevin Boiter would be the first person to tell you that people are still getting great jobs in manufacturing.

As department head for Electro/Mechanical Technology at PTC, Boiter has watched his students get good, high paying jobs even in the thick of the recession—sometimes doubling their salaries after graduation. “There is, and there always will be, a demand for people with the right skill sets,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is that a lot of manufacturers have openings they can’t fill due to a lack of trained people.”

Boiter says that trend is likely to increase in the coming years.

With major new industrial investments in Laurens County in the form of ZF Group, which is ultimately projected to bring 1,200 new jobs to the Upstate, substantial expansions in existing businesses like the Bridgestone facility in Aiken County, and huge projects like Boeing in the Lowcountry, the manufacturing sector in South Carolina is poised for major growth over the next decade.

For PTC graduates in Mechatronics and Industrial Electronics, that means opportunity.

A High Tech Career in Manufacturing

Although most people still think of manufacturing as it was fifty years ago, many would be surprised at the level of technical knowledge required to work in a modern production facility.

Increased production requirements have brought increased automation. “About 95 percent of a facility like the BMW plant is robotic,” said Boiter. Companies need skilled and talented people to troubleshoot and maintain the complex equipment that keeps them running smoothly. “You have to have people who know how to maintain and run robots—people with a very high-level skill set.”

"There is, and there always will be, a demand for people with the right skill sets,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is that a lot of manufacturers have openings they can’t fill due to a lack of trained people."

Piedmont Technical College offers two degree programs designed to meet the needs of these industries: Industrial Electronics and Mechatronics.

Industrial Electronics Technology is a broad program designed to prepare graduates for employment in manufacturing, merchandising, testing, installing, monitoring, modifying and repairing electrical and electronic equipment systems.  Mechatronics is an interdisciplinary field which combines elements of electronics, pneumatics, hydraulics, mechanics, IT, computers and robotics.

Incorporating both mechanics and electronics, Mechatronics Technicians take a more systems-based approach.

“Mechatronics Technicians work with everything from software to hardware,” Boiter said. “They’ll understand and be able to maintain and repair everything from industrial computer systems and programmable logic controllers to heavy mechanical systems.”

Hands-On Instruction, Helpful Instructors

This kind of complexity can be intimidating for some people considering the program, but Boiter stresses that each concept is accompanied by hands-on application. 

Instructors in the Industrial Electronics and Mechatronics programs spend a great deal of time showing students how the components they’ve studied in class actually work in functioning machinery and circuits.

For students like Matthew Lee from Abbeville, this focus on practical application makes the difference. “I understand things better if I can get my hands on them, so the applied portion of the program is very helpful and interesting.”

Boiter says that the ideal student would be mechanically inclined, with a natural curiosity. “Really, the kinds of students who excel might have typically been good old farm boys in the past. They’re people who are inquisitive about the way things work and aren’t afraid to take things apart.”

Students in the program come from a wide range of backgrounds. While some come straight out of high school, many, like John Clark of Ninety Six, are coming back for further training after spending years in industry.

“I was a navy aviation mechanic, but I decided to further my education in industrial electronics,” said Clark. “For me, it’s been great that the instructors are there when you need them. The staff is friendly and very helpful. The tutoring center is great when you need extra help.”

For Clark, like many other students, it’s really about a career at the end of the day. “It is worth the investment in the future,” he said.

A Curriculum Designed in Collaboration with Industry

For these career-minded students, it’s good to know that the entire Mechatronics curriculum has been designed in partnership with the same industries many of them will work for after graduation.

“While Mechatronics is a new approach in the United States,” said Kevin Moore, Industrial technology instructor, “it’s been a widely accepted career in Europe since the nineties. The field started in the Upstate when BMW asked us for a common curriculum dealing with both mechanical and electrical concepts.”

Developed under a collaboration of the five Upstate technical colleges called TechReadySC, every aspect of the program has been put together in response to needs expressed by employers.  The program meets industry standards as defined by BMW, Bosch, Fujifilm and Tyco, and students are trained on state-of-the-art mechatronics equipment from suppliers including Kuka Robot Group, Festo, US learning Systems and Siemens.

“Our students are getting first-hand experience with the same kind of tasks they’ll need to handle on the job,” says Boiter. “When our students leave us, they’re fully prepared to go to work.”

Which Path is Right for Me?

Industrial Electronics

Industrial electronics maintenance technicians install, troubleshoot, repair and maintain electronic systems and equipment used in industrial manufacturing. They maintain the electronic systems and programmable logic controllers (PLCs), checking for loose connections and defective components on electronic control systems and mechanical equipment.

To fix a problem, technicians may conduct and evaluate computer diagnostic tests or attempt to reproduce the problem on a PLC test system.

Mechatronics Technology

Whereas Industrial Electronics focuses on the installation, troubleshooting and repair of a system’s components, Mechatronics focuses on the whole system.

Because industrial applications today incorporate elements of different aspects of engineering to create complex, automated systems, employers need technicians with skills that cross a variety of disciplines. Mechatronics students cross-train in control systems, electronic systems, computers and mechanical systems that integrate product design and automated manufacturing processes. Course work combines various skills to teach students a comprehensive approach to developing solutions for work-specific applications.

For more information and for program requirements, visit the Mechatronics and Industrial Electronics page.