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Mechatronics Degree Program Growing at UT Chattanooga

Mechatronics, an interdisciplinary field combining robotics with electrical and mechanical engineering, is an in-demand field for engineers and a burgeoning program at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.

by Dave Flessner, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. / April 1, 2021

(TNS) — Kalen Berry began his collegiate training at Tennessee Technology University studying to become an electrical engineer, but after an internship with Logan Aluminum, the Knoxville native also got interested in mechanical engineering and working with computers to make machines and robots do more tasks.

Berry's diverse engineering interests came together in the study of mechatronics at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which began offering as a bachelor's in applied science degree two years ago.

"When I heard about what was going on at UTC, I jumped at the chance to come here and it was a great opportunity to use all of the engineering skills and fields I was interested in and it was great to be able to do that in much more personalized program," said Berry, who graduated as one of the first UTC graduates of the mechatronics engineering program last December.

In July, the 25-year-old Chattanooga engineer will join Thermo Fisher Scientific where he hopes to advance into engineering and managements jobs in the growing field of robots, artificial intelligence and other machine-based disciplines.

"Mechatronics is really key to the new applied technologies we're seeing in manufacturing, medicine, the automotive industry and many other businesses and there are a lot of exciting opportunities," said Berry, who likens the field to a swiss army knife capable of many diverse uses. "I was able at UTC to work on two published academic articles and also start a student mechatronics club while at UTC. I think there is a huge potential for more growth here and to do it in an environment where you are regarded as much more than just another number or another student."

As demand for mechatronics talent continues to grow, UTC's engineering school became only the second four-year degree program in Tennessee to offer a mechatronic engineering specialty. Ahad Nasab, head of the Department of Engineering Management and Technology, brought the program to UTC after creating the state's first four-year program in mechatronics engineering at Middle Tennessee State University, starting in 2013.

Nasab said there are currently 65 students in the UTC program, "but we'd like to ultimately expand this in the hundreds, as demand warrants."

There are currently an estimated 132,500 mechatronics engineers in the United States, but the profession is expected to grow another 6.4 percent by 2026, according to CareerExplorer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a mechatronics engineer in the United States is $99,040 per year.

UTC is building upon local high school and community college programs that the Volkwagen Academy, Chattanooga State Community College, Cleveland State College and Georiga Northwestern Technical College have each added during the past decade to train the technicians and maintenance workers who are operating and fixing the new machines. The engineering program will help in the development, design and diverse uses of the growing array of robots and machine systems in plants, labs and other worksites.

"This program really is in response to the industry needs in this region from manufacturers who are looking for people with different skills," said Daniel Pack, associate dean of the UTC College of Engineering and Computer Science. "They are looking for people who have the electrical, mechanical and computer systems training all combined and this is the program that teaches those skills needed for the future."

By its nature, the mechatronics engineering program is more capital intensive for UTC to acquire and maintain the increasingly sophisticated pieces of equipment that are increasingly doing the work in 21st century factories.

On Wednesday, UTC showed off its $1 million worth of lab equipment in a new second floor lab in the Engineering and Computer Science building on campus. Pack said UTC has used a combination of grants, industry gifts and discounted machine prices to equip the new facility.

Within the lab is a working replica of a production line that stretches along one side of the room. The lab also features an industrial robot previously used by Denso at its automotive production plants in Tennessee.

Being able to troubleshoot machinery such as the production line is one of the goals for graduates of the mechatronics degree program. Another goal is to give students the capability to design new machines or modify existing ones, he says.

"Our ideal situation is that, when they graduate and they go to work and they look at the work, they will say, 'I've seen all this. I've done all this," Nasab said.

Charles Wood, the vice president of economic development at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce who works to recruit and grow local businesses, said Chattanooga's diverse mechatronics training programs at area schools give Chattanooga a leg up on most other communities in ensuring talent to staff modern manufacturing facilities.

"The adoption of automation is growing exponentially in industry and as we look at everything from distribution centers, to manufacturing plants to health care facilities, these programs are extremely valuable in giving us the workforce needed for the future," Wood said.

Erin Watson, a process engineer at Duracell in Cleveland who is scheduled to graduate from UTC's mechatronics engineering program in May, has worked in the field since she began working as an apprentice at Volkswagen in 2013. She has worked on industrial equipment in a variety of roles over the past eight years at VW, Gestamp, TVA and now Duracell.

"I've worked in industry and it's great to see in the classroom and lab here what you actually see in our local plants as well," Watson said. "This program has allowed me to move into a whole new career, not just as a technician, but as an engineer working in a variety of potential roles."

(c)2021 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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