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How to become a robotics engineer

In today’s world, robots and AI are common place. The field of mechatronics is constantly growing and evolving, according to Associate Professor Matthew Joordens, the Course Director for Deakin’s Bachelor of Mechatronics Engineering (Honours). In fact, the robotics engineering industry is projected to grow 6.4% from 2016 to 2026.

This is thanks to workplace automation – robots make jobs safer and more efficient. While many industries are seeking to incorporate robots and automation into their workflow, a lack of qualified professionals is holding such an expansion back. This means there’s never been a better time to chase an interest in robotics design.

Having worked for five years in the industry as a control system engineer at Industrial Control Technology, Assoc. Prof. Joordens is an expert in what it takes to succeed. It’s a multi-faceted job, that requires skills in many different areas, but once you’ve honed those skills, you’ll open the door to a plethora of job opportunities.

If you’re passionate about helping shape a future where humans and robots work and live collaboratively, take notes, because this is an industry professional’s advice on how to become a robotics designer.

What are the most important skills held by robotics designers?

‘The most important skill for any professional is communications. You need to be able to talk to your clients, get their needs and present your solutions. Apart from this, the roboticist must be multi-talented and be able to be good at electronics, mechanical, programming and artificial intelligence. Often people are very good one of those.

‘Some like the practicality of a mechanical object that you can hold and feel, others are at home with the abstractness of electrons whizzing through a circuit and some are adept at the logical step by step methods of programming. The robot – or indeed, any controlled system – is a mechanical object that is controlled with electronics and programming.

‘The roboticist may be asked to do any or all of these tasks at any time; design a body, design the control circuitry or design the AI and programming.’

What are a few pros and cons of being a robotics designer?

‘Well the first con is having to be good at all the skills required. If a person is good with mechanical, often that person is average at electronics or programming. A person happy with electronics may get lost in the mechanical side. To become a good roboticist, one must work hard to become proficient at all the skills.

‘Once this is achieved this con becomes a pro. A person well versed in mechanical, electronics, programming and AI becomes a highly desired person in industry. In larger companies this sort of person is able to work in many departments and be someone who can liaise between departments.

‘This person knows the jargon of both the mechanical and the electrical departments. Smaller companies often look for this person, because a multi-skilled person is invaluable as most employees in small companies have many different roles.’

What are the study pathway options to become a professional in this field?

‘The major path is to complete high school and then go university and complete and engineering degree in mechatronics. Mechatronics is the study of both mechanical and electronics and a good mechatronics degree will also have programming and artificial intelligence in it. This is the path most people take.

‘Another possibility is to go to a TAFE college and complete a diploma or certificate in mechanical or electronics or electrical and then go and complete the mechatronics degree at a university. This path is a little longer, but it does give the TAFE person a bit more maturity with basic practical skills before entering university.

‘A further approach is to do two undergraduate degrees, one in mechanical and one in electronics. This takes a lot longer but gives more depth into each discipline.

‘Or you can go the way I did 35 years ago: complete an electrical and electronics degree, get a job as a control systems engineer (the name used before the word mechatronics was coined) and learn the mechanical side on the job. Today, I would not advise this approach!’

'The roboticist must be multi-talented and be able to be good at electronics, mechanical, programming and artificial intelligence.'

Matthew Joordens,
School of Engineering, Deakin University

What are the best ways to start getting industry experience in robotics design?

‘First up, try your own project during your degree. Being interested in robotics during my electrical and electronics degree I build a robot dog. I would go as far as I could with it then I would learn something new in class which would let me advance my robot some more.

‘This improved my practical skills and gave me something to show or discuss at interviews. This demonstrated to potential employers that I was passionate and could do engineering design and work. Robotics is a subset of mechatronics which looks at the electronic control of mechanical systems. Those systems don’t have to be robots.

‘Many engineering firms design control systems to automate industrial processes. If you can’t get work experience at a robotics company, try any of these other engineering firms.’

What are your tips for applying for jobs in this field?

‘Research the company you are applying to. What is their product? Think about how you could contribute to their product. Have a project you have done that shows your skill in all the areas of mechanical, electronics, programming and artificial intelligence.

‘In your application letter concentrate on the skills you have that the company is looking for. Have a one-page summary of your assets. When asked about your abilities use your project as an example of what you can do concentrating on the skills required by the company.

‘Dress well! Many employers will be of a previous generation to you and will expect this. It is always better to overdress than underdress. Be confident but remember, if you don’t know an answer, be honest.’

What other career options are worth considering if you’re interested in robotics design?

‘Robotics is just one small area in a very large field. Robotics itself covers all types: from toys, to companionship robots, to caregiving robots, to medical and industrial robots.

‘With mechatronics, the field widens to any mechanical product that needs some form of control. Manufacturing is being more and more automated, and not just with robots, by all the machines that build part of a product. All these machines are being linked to each other to share information and increase productivity in something called Industry 4.0.

‘There is also the medical field with surgery robots, exoskeletons and caregiving robots. You could look at animatronics for the entertainment industry. Cars today are becoming more and more controlled with electronics and artificial intelligence.

‘You could go further and do a PhD in robotics to work at universities and research institutions and develop the next generation of robots!’

Want to turn your love of robotics and AI into a career? Find out where a degree in mechatronics engineering can take you.

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Matthew Joordens
Matthew Joordens

Course Director, Bachelor of Mechatronics Engineering (Honours), School of Engineering, Deakin University

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