Let’s face it. The public has a surface-level understanding of the robotic engineering industry. Thanks to the media, and some healthy imagination, we envision a new, progressive industry filled with modern engineers, hovercrafts and automated toys. But the robotic engineering industry is neither new, nor occupied by a new breed of engineers (at least not yet). For high school students preparing for STEM careers in this field, it’s important to separate the facts from the fiction and dive into the core of the matter. Here are few things to know:
It’s Not Just Mars Rovers and Toys
Contrary to popular belief, robotic engineering is not dominated by the development of Mars rovers or automated butlers. Though the idea sounds sleek and futuristic, robotic engineering is a new title for the manufacturing automation industry.
The automation industry began with Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line and focused on using refined motion to simplify menial processes and reduce the cost of manufacturing. Upon the commercialization of electronics, the industry began to incorporate electronic components across the board. The inclusion of electronics did not change the core of the industry; electronics simply allowed the industry to use control systems to further automate and optimize more complex processes.
For the most part, the industry has remained focused on manufacturing automation. In fact, most robots currently in use are solely dedicated to the automobile assembly industry, not for droids or Hollywood-created concepts.
However, robotic engineering is driving progress —and you can still be a part of that. Just understand that you probably won’t start by building C3POs.
You’ll Work on Interdisciplinary Teams
While the manufacturing automation industry is primarily focused on motion refinement, the field was long dominated by mechanical engineers. Then, with the advent of control systems, the automation industry began to hire electrical engineers and control system designers. As computers became even more complex, the industry started to include computer engineers and scientists. Today, the industry has turned into a dynamic mix of problem solvers from multiple disciplines.
Ultimately, it’s necessary to have a collection of diverse engineers in this field since robots need input from various specialties to function. For example, an automatic lawn mower needs to move, think, notice its surroundings and spin its blade. This would require (at least) mechanical engineers, control systems engineers and computer scientists.
Few industries have such an array of disciplines woven into the fabric of its DNA, which is one reason why robotic engineering is so unique. Also, because a variety of skillsets and degrees are needed, students have greater opportunities to contribute.
You Don’t Have to Be a “Robotic Engineer” to Engineer Robots
Universities have only recently offered undergraduate degrees specifically for robotic engineering. Therefore, most students gravitate toward mechanical engineering, control systems or computer science degrees.
But which of these areas should you pick? It’s simple—choose the subset that interests you the most. Don’t get a degree in control systems if you are passionate about 6-axis robotic arms. If you’re excited about motor controllers, don’t get a degree in software development. That way, if you don’t decide to enter the robotic engineering industry, your degree enables you to do something you are passionate about.
Plus, becoming an expert in an associated field will provide you with more career options going forward. For example, having a degree in mechanical engineering can also provide opportunities in power generation or aerospace (among others).
Once in college, apply—and expand—your knowledge of robotics by joining a robotics team, working on personal robotics projects and taking relevant electives. One last tip: While a bachelor’s degree can get you a job in that field, having a master’s really sets you apart.
If you are passionate about robotic engineering, now is an excellent time to join this expanding field. Just don’t let yourself fall for common misconceptions. By becoming well-informed, you can develop to be a game-changing pillar of this growing industry.
Bob Graff is a Senior Sales Manager, Education at Yaskawa America Inc. - Motoman Robotics Division