Mechatronics, or if you prefer motion control, is the key enabling technology that makes manufacturing work. The mechanization of work is the history of mankind. From grinding grains with windmills in 7th century BC Syria, pumping water for irrigation in Europe using windmills in the middle ages, to the steam powered industrial revolution of the 18th century. I guess there is a part of our psyche that wants someone or something else to do the work for us.
The massive electrification of the 20th century is still going strong and penetrating every remote area of the globe so that the conveniences of the modern technological era are becoming available to all. Groups are bringing water wells and water treatment technology to farthest corners of the earth. Childern in remote villages are growing up with computers and the internet, electric light and the possibility to participate in almost any human endeavor.
The massive factory floor workforce required by industry 60 years ago is slowly being replaced by complex automation, control systems and robots. This should not be a surprise. The cost of labor has gone up and the cost of controls has come down. When CNC tools were first developed they were $500,000 machines. Today the most popular production machining centers are $55,000 and the recent “personal CNC” from Tormach has a starting price under $10,000.
Being more cost effective in the manufacturing arena is a requirement when facing global competition. When labor is available at $1. an hour in overseas markets, any serious manufacturer has to consider the potential impact. So the swing back to US “onshoring” is partly a response to problems encountered by outsourcing, such as quality issues, lead times, transportation costs, etc. Part of the onshoring trend is reflected in businesses that have re-strategized their manufacturing to get the best possible production, both quality and volume, from manufacturing resources using less people and more automation.
What is less talked about is the ground swell of new business opportunities. The huge buzz created by 3D printing is not significant in itself. What is most significant is the untold number of new markets created by the technology, which by the way is predominantly mechatronic. Check out all the motors and actuators required.
The new market opportunity should be obvious. Maker Bot was started by 3 people sitting around a kitchen table. It has received over $6 million in first round venture funding, was bought out by Stratasys for $440 million and the parent company currently employs over 1100 people. This is an industry that barely existed a few years ago.
The real magic in a free market economy is that wealth can be created by people willing to work hard to come up with something new.