The robot revolution is upon us.
New emerging technology is changing the workforce and creating a new digital economy that's opened up an evolving field of study in mechatronics.
Mechatronics is a multidisciplinary field of science and engineering that blends mechanical, electrical, computer and software skills to work with smart technologies, such as robots, automated guided systems and computer-integrated manufacturing equipment.
Getting a degree in mechatronics is often compared to obtaining a degree in advanced manufacturing.
"There's just so many things under that (umbrella), sometimes it's difficult to put a definition on it," said Colin Kirkwood, Sault College's vice-president of academic and research, with the job prospects for graduates pretty open-ended in areas of robotics, computer-aided design and automation.
"It's really expansive and everything points to an abundance of jobs for individuals who have graduated from programs tied to advanced manufacturing."
Advanced manufacturing is deemed a strategic priority of the City of Sault Ste. Marie.
To answer the call, Sault College launched a four-year bachelor of engineering degree in mechatronics this fall.
Knowing the college had a role to play in producing graduates with skills that employers want, Kirkwood said they investigated introducing a degree program in mechatronics, and found a willing and established partner in Toronto's Humber College.
Kirkwood calls mechatronics a "natural fit," one that aligns with one of the college's strengths of historically having very robust mechanical and electrical process automation technology programs.
Partnering with Humber gave Sault College access to a large institution with a great deal of resources and experience in automation and mechatronics, and access to technology, equipment and human resources they wouldn't otherwise have.
The mechatronics program builds upon the college's state-of-the-art robotics lab on campus, installed a few years back by their contractor, Ionic Mechatronics of Sudbury.
One of their six axis-type robots is intended for applied research projects with students, Kirkwood said.
The rest are set up in an assembly line format where one robot performs a function with an item before passing it off on a conveyor belt to a second robot, then a third, fourth, fifth, and six for processing.
"When we were sourcing the robots, the supplier was actually very enthusiastic about this lab because they saw the potential in hiring some of the graduates for their own company," said Kirkwood.
He emphasized the experience students will be receiving in this program is one that replicates the actual work experience where professionals often gather virtually across countries and time zones to solve real-world problems collaboratively.
"Engineering is a global effort in many cases."
In the case of the city's two largest employers, Algoma Steel and Tenaris, a seamless tube producer, Kirkwood said when those companies install new automated equipment or a production line, that supplier could be coming from Europe or South America.
"You're working with engineers from all over the world."
What's intriguing about the Humber partnership is that students on both campuses will be working collaboratively on projects, very much like in the real work environment where engineers are collectively working remotely on projects that sometimes span continents, Kirkwood said.
The automation in labs on both campuses allows students to work on equipment located at Humber, very much like what an engineer would experience in the field or when employed by a company like Algoma Steel and Tenaris.
Sault College's mechatronics program, which started this past September, has four students on the Sault campus in the first cohort. Through virtual technology – with eventual project-sharing in later years – they are being blended into the 46 first-year mechatronics students on the Humber campus into one cohort of 50.
"They're working together as one single cohort even though there's a different location."
Sault College is delivering the same program as Humber, but with quite of lot of experiential learning involved. There are work placement opportunities between semesters to get involved with Northern Ontario companies.
As with any engineering program, Kirkwood said, entering the mechatronics field requires a strong background and a natural inclination toward mathematics and the sciences.
But Kirkwood also stressed that employers want graduates of this program to have the required soft skills to be able to work on a multi-disciplinary team.
"Incoming students must recognize teamwork is involved and have to be good communicators, as well being strong technically."
For the first year, students receive a foundation grounding in engineering knowledge and skills with plenty of algebra, calculus and physics, combined with an introduction into the basic concepts of engineering, how to design 3D models, computer programming, and how to develop critical thinking skills.
After the first year, the Humber curriculum broadens into three different discipline areas: Information Systems Engineering, Mechatronics, and the Built Environment.
In later years, students get immersed and start programming in leading-edge technologies in robotics, control, electronics, programmable logic controllers (PLC), motors, mechanical components, digital and analog circuits, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), machine learning, modelling, simulation, embedded systems, and advanced manufacturing.
"When students sign up for mechatronics, they know what courses they're going to be taking for the next four years," said Kirkwood. "They get a choice (to specialize) when entering their capstone projects."
Because of their interdisciplinary training, mechatronics engineers and technicians are always in high demand and highly valued, since they can find work in a wide variety of sectors in the automotive, aerospace, computer, communications and medical spaces.
They can design and build automotive components, manufacturing equipment, aerospace systems, biomedical testing equipment, systems that work in artificial intelligence and virtual reality labs, which can take place on a university campus, in a private lab, in a hospital or for a mining supply company.
According to ziprecruiter.com, entry-level mechatronics engineers earn an average of US$54,500 per year, roughly $69,000 Canadian.
Kirkwood said local employers, such as Algoma Steel and Tenaris Tubes, are thrilled with the launch of the program. Both companies are supporting the program with funding in the form of scholarships and equipment purchases.
Algoma, one of Canada's largest integrated steel mills, has construction underway on new electric are furnaces, scheduled to be in operation by 2026. Projects with the degree of automation like that require people with type of skills that graduates of mechatronics engineering will possess, he said.
Kirkwood said one of the challenges they have at the college is keeping their programs relevant.
"But we have great partnerships with industry and we're constantly refreshing our labs and the equipment the students are learning on."
That's vitally important when feeding the workforce demands of employers in fine-tuning the curriculum to follow the field of mechatronics.
"It's the graduates of programs like this one that will be (doing the) designing, operating, maintaining, and the types of employment that they get, we probably can't even imagine at this point.
"Many of things that they'll be doing might not be invented yet."
Kirkwood said it's difficult to predict what's going to happen with advanced manufacturing and robotics.
"These are all disruptive technologies and the graduates from programs like this will have no shortage of opportunities."