Thursday, September 19, 2013

[106] Arrival of MTSU mechatronics engineering signals growth, jobs

‘Game-changing’ addition takes program to new level

MURFREESBORO — Barely had the ink dried on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s approval of the MTSU mechatronics engineering program when things began to stir in the university’s Engineering Technology department.

Telephones began ringing and emails began coming in to the offices of department chair Walter Boles and faculty member Ahad Nasab less than 24 hours after the late July approval.

Nasab, who will be the program’s coordinator, received 12 emails and phone calls by the next day. Several days later, he was meeting with students extremely interested in jumping into what will be Tennessee’s only mechatronics engineering bachelor’s degree program, one that makes MTSU a full-fledged engineering school.

“It’s, quite honestly, a game-changer,” said MTSU alumnus and industry partner Jimmy Davis, owner of Murfreesboro-based The Davis Groupe and member of the Engineering Technology Advisory Board. “Now MTSU is a true engineering school. They have a true engineering degree. … The engineering technology department is taking it to the next level.”

A video about the mechatronics engineering program can be viewed on YouTube at the following link:

Boles said Davis “is a very strong supporter of our department and mechatronics.” Davis’ company supplies machinery, tools and parts to clients that include Toyota, General Motors and Nissan, among others. Davis is an Engineering Technology Advisory Board member and past president.

“It’s exciting. We know how to proceed from here,” said Boles, adding that more steps lie ahead to get the program going. “There’s more work for us, but we’re willing to do that because we are public servants and we need to get it done.”

Mechatronics is a design process that includes a combination of mechanical, electrical, control and computer programming. The mechatronics engineering program is based on a three-level international certification program created by Siemens AG, a German engineering company.

A perfect example of a mechatronic system is a surgical robot, which performs precision mechanical work under sophisticated electronic and sensory control

There’s a high demand for skilled workers to maintain and repair mechatronic systems. People trained and certified in mechatronics engineering can expect high growth opportunities and wages.

“This is not one of those things where if you build it, they will come,” Nasab said of the increasing student interest. “They are already here.”

Some 50 to 100 students are expected to be in the program by the end of the fall semester “because the first-year coursework will transfer into the mechatronics engineering program with no problem,” Boles said. “So we should be able to start offering the mechatronics engineering courses beginning in the spring.”

Presently, 595 undergraduate and 25 graduate students are enrolled in engineering technology, which is one of 10 departments in the College of Basic and Applied Sciences.

Nasab said $500,000 is being requested for mechatronic and automation equipment, which initially would be housed in one of the Voorhies Engineering Technology laboratory spaces. He added that the equipment represents “complete systems, which is different than the equipment we have now.”

MTSU alumnus and state Sen. Bill Ketron has a unique perspective of this new program from being a small business owner and a member of the Engineering Technology Advisory Board.

“It (mechatronics) fills a niche that a lot of students have not been able to fill because it was never available,” Ketron said.

One of the fascinating aspects surrounding the arrival of the new program is the range of community and worldwide partnerships involved since the beginning.

Collaborators include Motlow College, Rutherford County Schools (top administrators and Oakland and the new Stewarts Creek high schools), elected officials and industry, including Nissan North America Inc., Bridgestone Americas Tire Operation, Yates Services, Siemens AG and others.

“Industry leaders are the ones who pushed it,” Nasab said.

Ketron said the economic impact will be significant.

“Once we start training these young people and the industries and manufacturing concerns realize there’s a good, trained and educated workforce for their needs, they’ll start locating here or not even think about pulling up and moving to some other location,” he said.

One student’s path to the mechatronics program

Michigan native Dallas Trahan planned to study business at Michigan State University. Unsure of what he wanted to do, Trahan (pronounced TRON) eventually dropped out and took a year off from school. He and a friend moved to Nashville, where Trahan found full-time work with a soft drink company. His friend did not find work and returned to Michigan.

Trahan, 20, said he started attending MTSU “because it was affordable and close by.” His MTSU academic interest had been electro-mechanical engineering.

That is until he learned in April that MTSU was considering adding mechatronics engineering. When he recently heard the program was official, he scheduled a meeting with Nasab.

“I want to be a person who can do everything,” Trahan said. “Mechatronics seems to be the way to go. A lot more opportunities could arise; a lot more doors can open than with just an engineering technology degree. With mechatronics, you can do what you want.”

Nasab told Trahan he expects “a lot of students will switch from other majors after this year, and a majority of them are currently between their sophomore and junior year.”

Trahan added that he believes mechatronics engineering “will be the most valuable degree I could get here.” He said he received a draft copy of the curriculum before it was approved. “It was a little intimidating at first. I had to go back and forth, but I believe it’s the right path for me.”

Boles told Trahan there will be a one-hour course preparing mechatronics students for the fundamentals of engineering exam that normally is given to engineering seniors in their last semester.

Boles said the exam is part of a two-step process for obtaining a professional engineering license. After graduation, several years of experience is required before the individual is allowed to take the licensure exam.

“We want you guys to hit a home run with it,” Boles told Trahan, talking about the fundamentals of engineering exam. “We want you to graduate with a higher passing rate than at any engineering program in the state.”

Nasab added that the importance of the fundamentals of engineering test is that many schools use the results to show how well prepared their students are for an engineering career.

A professor’s perspective

Ahad Nasab, who accepted the challenge to run the program, has served on the MTSU faculty since 1991. In brief, he earned his bachelor’s from California State University Northridge near Los Angeles and both his master’s and doctorate in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, one of the nation’s top engineering schools.

With research interests in robots and automation, he was a natural fit to take the lead role with the program.

“Our program is different from a traditional mechatronics program,” he said. “It is going to have a systems approach. We are going to start with a system, then break it down into subsystems, learn the subsystems, then break it down into components and in the process, learn all the engineering related to the entire system. So our graduates will be able to design products with a system in mind, not just one component.”

In July, after the TBR approved the program but before THEC OK’d it, Nasab attended a Siemens Level 1-A certification workshop in Pennsylvania. He traveled to Berlin, Germany, for a Level 1-B certification workshop in August as well as holding talks on cooperation for development of the Level 3 certification.

“We had a very productive week at Siemens Technical Academy (in Germany),” Nasab said. “Besides the training workshop, we held daily talks on streamlining the Siemens objectives with our new mechatronics engineering program.”

Nasab said the development of the new Level 3 certification, which requires a bachelor’s degree, will be conducted with close collaboration between MTSU and Siemens.

“Once the model and the requirements are developed, the resulting methods and literature will be distributed worldwide for others to consider Level 3 certification,” he said.

Nasab said he will be in charge of establishing new courses for the program, recruiting new students, cooperating with local high schools and community colleges and seeking external funding for mechatronics equipment.

Benefits of mechatronics

In addition to the traditional benefits of an engineering degree, the MTSU mechatronics engineering degree offers the following benefits:

• Systems approach problem-solving techniques;

• Team interaction and dynamics;

 • Understanding system integration of mechanical/electrical/control components;

• Professional communication and documentation skills; and

• Learning the business, operation and safety aspects of engineering.

For more information about the program, email Nasab at or call 615-898-2052.

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