Mechatronics (in South Africa)

or Mechatronic Engineering, humourously (but incorrectly) referred to as Megatronics at times. In Afrikaans Megatronika or Megatroniese Ingenieurswese. What is it? What can you do with it? When I started studying I didn’t know, after 5 years I think I have a vague idea. So below I’m going to post what I know.

In it’s simplest form it’s a combination of Mechanical and Electronic Engineering. If I really don’t feel like explaining, I simplify it to robotics. This is certainly a large portion of Mechatronics, but by no means a limiting factor.

Mechatronics as a named profession is fairly new, but the idea has always been there. In the South African context, UCT have had an accredited BSc (Eng) Mechatronics course since 1997 (although how long it has actually been running is uncertain), NMMU a BEng since 2007 (first graduates) and Stellenbosch since 2005 [1]. Potchefstroom University (NWU) are apparently aiming to start a course in the next few years [2]. Although not offered in the BEng format, UKZN do offer Masters through their Mechatronics and Robotic Research Group [3]. [EDIT: added list of BTech degrees and Diplomas offered at the bottom of the post]

Mechatronics at Stellenbosch [2]

I completed my BEng Mechatronics at Stellenbosch University in 2011. The Mechatronics course was presented by the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering in a four year course. The first two years were identical to that of those studying towards a BEng Mechanical. The first year course is identical for all engineering students. In the third and fourth years, the two courses still followed similar routes, with the Mechatronics course replacing several Mechanical courses with some courses presented by the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering. In third year these included Electronics and Computer System’s courses and fourth year Electronics and Electronic Design Courses. Losing out on some Strength of Materials and Thermo-Fluid Mechanics.

The department put it this way [6]

The most important difference between the mechanical engineering programme and the mechatronic programme is that mechanical engineers are equipped to develop mechatronic systems with existing controllers (computers, PLC’s, etc.), while mechatronic engineers are also equipped to develop specialised controllers (e.g. for embedded controllers) and the relevant electronics themselves.

At the time, the Head of Department felt that Mechatronics as an entity was still too new. Employers weren’t advertising for Mechatronic Engineers, and didn’t really know what to do with them when they did get them. This resulted in the close ties between the Mechanical and Mechatronic courses. I was often unhappy about this, having would of preferred more focus on the Electronics, but in the end it worked out. And the HoD’s opinions were/are valid.

When I chose Mechatronics, I didn’t know where I was going to work, I chose the course because it sounded interesting. It wasn’t until my final year that I found a direction to work towards. Course setups at different universities are going to be different, and will put emphasis on different subjects, that doesn’t necessarily make one better than the other. Either way you’re going to come out of it with a degree and a fair amount of knowledge. Most importantly though (and this is true for any engineering degree) is you’ll know how to learn.

I’m quite confident that specific things that I learn in my first year of work will be of more value to my career than a specific subject at varsity, but having struggled through several subjects, I know I can figure out most things that come my way. I know where to look and how to go about solving problems.

In my final year we were a class of 85 Mechanical/Mechatronic students, of which I’d say about 30-35 received their BEng Mechatronics in 2011.

Mechatronics at NMMU [2]

NMMU have a slightly different setup. Mechatronics is presented by the Mechatronics school of the Department of Engineering, the Built Environment and IT. Mechatronics is the only Engineering degree they offer. As such, first year physics and maths are taken alongside BSc students and after the first year, courses taken are aimed only at Mechatronics students. The format of the course is still identical to that of when it started giving a good balance of subjects. The University also offers an array of BTech degrees in other Engineering fields.

I’m currently pursuing my master’s degree at NMMU. Their 4th year BEng Mechatronics class has roughly 25 students in it and the 3rd year class about 30. First year applications are limited to 60, with the most recent 1st year class starting with 50 students. The Mechatronics department is currently sponsored by General Motors South Africa (who have a plant in PE) and also have close ties to the Volkswagen plant in Uitenhage.

Mechatronics in General

Mechatronics as a career is still finding its feet. Meaning many consider it a jack of all trades, master of none type of situation, and although the course may feel that way, it’s certainly not the end of the story.

Mechatronics isn’t a new field, it’s just finally been given a name. When you tell people you’re a Mechatronic Engineer they don’t know what that is. I had a month stint at a large production facility as part of vacation training and I was asked to choose between focusing on their Mechanical or Electrical divisions, eventually settling for a bit of time at each. But that’s how businesses in SA are structured. This will change.

Several Mechatronic Engineers that I know have taken up Automation maintenance posts. Nothing wrong with this, personally it’s not where I want to be. Contrary to this though, my first job next year will be in automation maintenance. I however plan to use this as a stepping stone into a design career.

Automation is fun, and whereas I am going into automation in a production sense, automation also relates to smaller and/or more technical situations. The recent landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars is a perfect example of Mechatronic systems. There are several elements here, from the automated landing system to the remote control of the device.

In the motor industry, systems such as traction control, ABS and ESP are all examples of Mechatronic systems. Heavily complicated systems that rely on the processing of data from sensors to enable control of actuators. As such a Mechatronic Engineer can make him/herself home in  many different industries. These include the Automotive, Aerospace, Manufacturing, Medical and Communications Industries.

Mechatronic Engineers can register with ECSA to become Professional Engineers [4]. The industry is governed by the South African Institute for Mechanical Engineers. I don’t see Mechatronics separating from this tree any time soon. The degree, being accredited by ECSA also means that the degree will be recognised internationally in many countries thanks to the Washington, Sydney and Dublin Accords [5]

So what do you do when you have your degree? You do whatever you want. You’ll find something. I’m not aware of any of my colleagues who are currently not pursuing a post-graduate degree or are employed. Not all of them are in Mechatronic specific posts. Some have opted for more mechanical orientated jobs, while others have gone entirely into areas such as electronic design or programming. And that’s one thing, a degree in Mechatronic Engineering in no way limits you. Very few engineering degrees will actually.

After re-reading what I’ve written, I think I’ve put forward some information relating to Mechatronic Engineering, but it’s still left fairly vague, maybe it’s just because none of us know what we’re really doing :)

"This is silly, of course. The enemy will be born in the Network"

From xkcd.com

 

A National Diploma in Mechatronics (for registration as a Professional Engineering Technician) can also be had from the following institutions [7]:

  • Tshwane University of Technology
  • UNISA
  • Cape Peninsula University of Technology

A BTech in Mechatronics (for registration as a Professional Engineering Technologist) from [8]:

  • Tshwane University of Technology
  • UNISA
  • Cape Peninsula University of Technology

and to reiterate, a BEng, or BScEng (for registration as a Professional Engineer) [1]:

  • Stellenbosch University
  • University of Cape Town
  • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Note: Although other institutions may offer courses in Mechatronics, or Mechanical Engineering with a focus on Mechatronic elements, the ones listed above are the only ones recognised by ECSA for registration as a mechatronic professional. Information was correct at time of posting, but may have changed since.

There are also several Universities of Technology and FET Colleges which offer courses in Mechatronics. CPUT is one of these institutions. Another training institution is Umbilo Training Specialists in Durban. They are running a free training course, once a month where anyone can come to learn more and expand their knowledge. Checkout their page for details.

For some more reading and a very complimentary view with some poignant remarks have a read here.

As part of my degree at Stellenbosch University I completed a project which can be seen here.

As part of my master’s degree at NMMU I completed a project which can be seen here and here.

If you’re looking for bursaries, try this website.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments section.

408 thoughts on “Mechatronics (in South Africa)

  1. Hi Gareth my name is Yonela just read your blog what enriching info thank you sir and im definitely confident in studying machatronics at nmmu this year

  2. Hi Gareth
    Thank you so much for the insightful information.

    I’m about to begin my first year at UCT where I was accepted for Mechanical engineering but would like to change to Mechatronics (as I too have fallen in love with it) on registration day and I’d like to know why there’s a high first-year drop-out rate for the course (as you’ve mentioned in some of the older comments.) The people I’ve asked also mention that it’s a very challenging field and with a degree in it, one is seen as overqualified and struggles to find work in this country.
    I got A’s for both maths and physics in matric but I know school-leaving results aren’t an accurate indication of how I’ll cope in university.

    Do you have any advice on what I can do to ensure I finish my degree in record-time. Also, it’s going to be my first time on my own in a different province and I worry that – as a teenager – I won’t have the time to explore and have fun as it sounds like such a demanding field.

    Could you please clarify and hopefully assure me that I am making the right decision by changing?

    Thanks
    Mandisa

    • Hey Mandisa

      Congrats on being accepted at UCT, if you’re interested in changing to Mechatronics I’d definitely suggest going for it. With reference to your concerns:
      – Very challenging field: Engineering in general is a challenging field, that statement is not unique to mechatronics, so don’t be afraid switching from mechanical to mechatronics.
      – High first year drop out: University is very different to high school. No one is going to check up on you. Although you’ll have assignments to work on, if you don’t do your homework, you’re not going to get in trouble, but you’re going to fall behind, and that is going to be worse. Things get taught at a much faster rate than in school, so if you don’t understand something during class, you have to figure it out after hours, you won’t be recapping it again in the next class. You’ll find almost everyone else studying engineering with you got A’s for maths and science, that only helps you so much in university.
      – Degree is seen as overqualified: I haven’t found that at all. Engineering degrees in general are still very much sought after in SA, and you shouldn’t have trouble finding employment, although depending on the exact type of career you want to follow, you might have to do something slightly different.
      – No time to have fun: University is a lot of work, and for some it can be overwhelming, but there’s always time to have fun. Besides big assignments, majority of your work you should be able to complete during the week, this leaves lots of time on weekends to get out and explore. You’ll find lots to do during the week as well, just try to find a balance.

      The biggest thing I want to stress is to make sure you understand the work sufficiently. Some classes will give readings to do in advance, some will have homework. This is how you check if you know what’s going on. If you’re not sure, speak to a friend, speak to your lecturer. There are always to get yourself to understand, but the longer you leave it, the harder it is to catchup, and is what results in dropouts.

      I hope this helps Mandisa

      Good luck.

  3. sir Gareth I’m Neo Lekgoathi I’m about to study mechatronic engineering at TUT but I’m not sure if I would get a decent job after receiving my diploma so that I can further my studies till I become a professional engineer.

    • Hi Neo.
      I was also at TUT i completed my Mechatronics diploma there.
      After S5 you will have to do a practical in service training. There you usually always get a job at the place you did your training. So no need to worry.
      I am now looking for a place to do my BTech part time, seeing as I work full time.

  4. hey there,this is Tumelo.I am doing my first year in mechatronics(NCV) at Sedibeng Tvet college.i’d like to know if when i finish my level 4 in mechatronics in two years time,will i have good chances being employed as a mechatronic engineer?

    • I don’t know the details of your specific course, but if you complete necessary internships and have the certification you should be able to find a job in the industry.

    • Hi Anton

      It seems UNISA is no longer offering, and is no longer accredited for a BTech Mechatronics. TUT still do offer it, and CPUT are now also accredited.

      • Hi Gareth.
        The only part that sucks, is that TUT sees “part time” study as Monday till Wednesday 8:00 till 17:00. Which is impossible if you work full time.

        • Hi Anton
          Sorry to hear that. You can consider doing a mechanical or electronic BTech. The background in Mechatronics should still you in good stead.

  5. Currently doing 3rd year Mechatronic Engineering at university of Stellenbosch. I feel mechatronic is a too broad course , and you know a bit of everything, but not REALLY something. You skip Strength of Materials with FEM for someone who would like to go into stress analysis. Which I think is critical to a mechanical engineer. We also miss much about Signal and systems which is again critical to an Electronic engineer.

    I am planning to do a post grad at the ESL lab, to catch up with EE related subjects, but I am still going to miss alot of critical subjects.

    Currently, I am really disappointed with Machine Design as we are not really learning something, but blindly building a CAD model without doing the necessary calculations to determine the various sizes for our project. It also feels more about determining the correct motors and bearings than actually doing the math behind it and understanding why.Your thoughts about this?

    I feel like moving now to EE would be a better choice for me, especially for someone who wants to go into the electronic side and be a specialist.

    It seems mechatronic engineer is the link between the mechanical and electrical engineering, but the mechatronic engineer doesn’t really do the math and critical decisions behind a design, since we don’t have the expertise as a EE and Mech engineer. Your thoughts?

    I have so much uncertainty about mechatronics as a degree, because we lack so much important subjects that will be expected from a engineer to know in any field related to Mechanical or EE. In large companies they have specialist engineers in their fields, and it seems a mechatronic engineer at the end of the day will only be doing a mechanical job or electrical job because of how the companies are set up. Your thoughs?

    Appreciate the Read!

    • Hey Henry
      Those are some very interesting, and not easy to answer questions. As a first thought, engineering degrees have a very broad scope. You’ll find E&E engineers who’ve never used what they learnt in systems and signals, and again find mechanical engineers who’ve never used FEM. Every course tries to introduce you to as many topics as possible that are associated with the study area.

      Machine design projects change from year to year, so I’m not sure what your topic is. 314 was definitely more general than 354 though, which required more calculations and focus. But the biggest problem with all projects is that they only have 6 months to teach you and get you to do a project. It’s simply not possible to get into the nitty gritty of every aspect of a project. Each course has its focus which it’s trying to introduce you too. No course is going to make you a master of anything, that only comes from working on projects in the real world.

      I can’t say whether you should move or not. The inclusion of computer systems and electronics in your 3rd year definitely made it worth its while for me, followed up by electronics 315 and electronic design in your 4th year. If you think you’re going to do a masters with the ESL lab, then by switching courses now, you’re adding another year and a half onto the length of your studies. Before you do that, be sure to go speak to one of the profs in teh E&E department. Get their opinion, and see if there are any mech engineers in the ESL at the moment that you can chat to and get their opinion as well.

      I don’t want to play down any of your concerns. I would have preferred a stronger E&E link with the mechatronics course as well, but it is what it is. I feel that each course has its place, and sets you up for a career in multiple different fields. Mechatronic engineers are heavily linked with automation and manufacturing jobs, and although some big companies pigeon hole their positions for simplicity, there are many smaller companies that aren’t concerned with exactly what you’ve studied, but more with what you can do with it.

      Hope this has helped some what.

      • Thanks for the reply.

        My interest is Robotics, like Boston Dynamics, SpaceX landing procedure, or the ISS Canadarm.
        How do you think does the Stellenbosch Mechatronic course sets you up in directions like above?

        I do realize you do need a lot of experience before you land jobs like those, but just in general what do you think?

        I would love to hear your story on how you ended up in LA? I would lovee to work overseas if the opportunity arrives..

        I would like to DM you, but your Contact page redirects me to your Twitter automatically.

        • Hey Henry,
          Thanks, I didn’t realize there was a problem with my contact page, it should be fixed now.
          I’ll send you an email though, to discuss further.
          Gareth

          • Hi Gareth & Henry,
            Can I please ask that you continue your discussion above on this post and not in private if possible. Very interested….
            Thanks

          • Hey Etienne
            If you have any questions you’re welcome to send me an email (you can even copy Henry’s questions), just use the contact page, I will respond. Some questions have general answers I’m happy to post here, others are more specific which I’d rather not post online.
            Gareth

      • In response to my questions, Gareth answered:

        “You need a lot of experience before you land jobs like those mentioned. That’s not necessarily true. I’m not sure how Boston Dynamics operates these days, but both SpaceX and NASA are big organizations that take on a lot of fresh graduates. As a foreigner it’s a bit more difficult (if you’re specifically trying to work for them), and then you definitely do need some combination of academic and work experience.”

        “If you are interested in that line of work, I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with the Stellenbosch Mechatronics course. The combination of electronics, computer systems, and applied maths provided are good enough to get you working in those areas. You only really learn what you don’t know when you start working on something, so it’s hard for me to say what exactly is required for those jobs. They are highly technical and highly specialized though, so new grads aren’t going to be working directly on major products, but offering support. What these companies do like to see though is some kind of interest in the field. Try find a skripsie project in the field, are there projects you can work on outside of school which align with the kind of work you want to do.”

        Is there any advice you can give me about the course that you wished you have done differently? Do you have any regrets in terms of choosing mechatronics?
        How was your work searching experience with a Mechatronic degree?

        “In some ways I’ve been lucky though. I applied for a bursary with Mercedes-Benz in my third year, and received it for my final year at Stellenbosch. As such I had a job lined up for me straight out of varsity, so didn’t have to look for work. Although I spent year starting my masters at NMMU, before heading to work for Mercedes-Benz.”

        “While I was studying, I didn’t have a clear idea of what work I wanted to do. You do, so use that to your advantage. Work hard on Modelling, and Control Systems, I wish I had put more work into it. It’s stuff you can learn later, but if you can get a good grasp for it during your studies, it’s worth it. Otherwise the course itself isn’t as important as what you do with it. Companies are usually far more interested in the projects you’ve worked on than the subjects you’ve taken.”

        “Definitely do a skripsie with the E&E department. I did, and can recommend it. If you don’t like the skripsie topics, you can propose your own to a lecturer, and if they are willing to let you do it, that’s a guaranteed way to get the skripise you want. You can do this before the skripsie topics are made available as well.”

        “I don’t regret choosing mechatronics. It gave me what I wanted as much as a 4 year course could. Trying to find work at the moment has proven difficult, but I don’t think my degree has anything to do with that. Majority of jobs I’ve seen require for eg. “Bachelors of Science in Engineering (Mechanical, Electrical, Aerospace or other)”. That’s a job on Spacex’s website. So they’re usually fairly broadly scoped.”

        Do you think Mechatronics is too broad?

        “Having a mechatronics degree won’t stop you designing circuits and doing programming, it may slightly increase the barrier to doing it as a job, but this can be supplemented by personal learning and projects.”

  6. Hi would it be smart to do mechatronics at unisa as i am a working man but i also fell inlove with this field.

    • Hi Marvin,
      I don’t know what the course is like at UNISA, but if you’re wanting to study while you work, UNISA is pretty much the only option.
      Good luck!

  7. Hi there… Just a question. If you completed a Btech in MEchatronics and would like to change it into a BEng/Bsc Mechatronics,how to do go about it as your earlier posts says that with a Btech Mechatronics Degree your will be registered as a Proffesional Technician was appose to a Proffessional Engineer with a BEng/Bsc.

    Please shed some light.

    Thanks

    • Hi Jessie

      I don’t know if it’s possible to change your Btech into a BEng. Only three institutions currently offer a BEng and they all require you to do a full time course. You can try contacting them to find out if they would be willing to give you some credits off. A better option in my opinion would be to try get in to do a MEng, depending on your situation. If your ultimate goal is to get a PrEng, then this is a good way to achieve this. Try talking to lecturers where you got your BTech though for confirmation, as I don’t know all that goes into a Btech degree.

      • Hi Gareth,
        My name is Dan and I’m a foreigner who came from a francophone country so I’m not really used to the SA’s nominations.
        My concerns are as follow:

        – what is the difference between a Btech and a BEng? And which universities offer them?

        – I would like to study mechatronics but as Henry mentioned above, you know a bit of everything but really you don’t know anything.

        So I’m wondering whether to study mechanical then electrical engineering by adding some subjects such as programming and algorithmic …

        • Hi Dan

          Look at the bottom of the article and it’ll show which institutions offer which Degrees/Diplomas. As to the difference. A BEng (or BScEng) is a four year degree course. It is the most academic engineering qualification, relying on a strong science and maths background, and extending that, especially in the first two years, with more practical and applied subjects coming at a later stage.

          A BTech is most often offered as a 1 year course, following on from a 3 year diploma, although some institutions may offer it as a 4 year complete course. It is more practically orientated, and will give you more exposure to engineering applications. Also by definition, if you’ve completed a Diploma, you would have had to complete internships. Something A BEng does not require.

          For most engineers. The differentiation is unimportant, but for certain positions, where a Professional Engineer is required, depending on exact requirements, a BEng might be required.

          As to what you should study, I can’t help you there. I’ve said it many times, but your exact course won’t stop you from doing a specific type of work, but it can make it harder getting an initial job in the line of work you want. After your first job, experience is far more important.

          Also I would warn against expecting to do additional subjects. If you’re doing a full BEng degree and plan to finish within the four years, you have little time for doing additional subjects, officially in any case.

          Do you know what kind of work you want to do one day?

          • I’ll be doing a BTech at TUT.
            I wanted to study at UP but they don’t offer Mechatronics engineering course. Also I don’t really know what kind of work I want to do one day, I came in SA to do medicine but my foreigner status doesn’t help me at all so I’m trying to find what I can do as a second choice.

          • Hi Dan
            I’m not sure what the setup is like at TUT, but you might be able to change after your first year if you’re not happy with the mechatronics content, perhaps to a straight mechanical or electronic course.
            Good luck.

  8. Hi Gareth. This is Siphosethu and I’m currently doing scimathus, a year long bridging program in Stellenbosch University. Before coming to scimathus I wanted to pursue a career in electrical engineering, however I also liked mechanical but my interest fell on electrical, but now I’m considering mechatronics.. Between the three varsities you mentioned which would you advise a student to go to, reasoning in terms of getting nationally​ recognized degree and other reasons?

    • Hey Siphosethu,

      I generally don’t advise a specific university. I did my undergrad at Stellenbosch, and am thus heavily bias towards it. If you enjoy your year there, I suggest staying, it’s a great university. But that doesn’t mean that UCT and NMMU aren’t. All three offer an ECSA approved course, so on paper the degrees are equal. As far as reputation goes, that is generally more subjective and based on an employer’s opinion, but when working with larger organisations this is less of an issue.

      Sorry I can’t be of more help, if you have specific questions you’re welcome to send me a mail via the contact page and I can try answer in more detail.

      Gareth

  9. Hi Gereth I’m Siphephelo,I’m currently doing grade 12 this year and I’m interested in mechatronics.I was thinking of doing it in DUT but they only offer a National Diploma, So I would like to know if I have a diploma what are the chances of landing a good job after I’m graduating?

    Siphephelo

    • Hey Siphephelo, it depends on the kind of work you want to do and where you want to do it. With a diploma in Mechatronics, you can definitely get get a good job, but you would have to be willing to move, and maybe not do the kind of work you want to do, but that is perhaps true of any qualification.

      Mechatronics gives you a good amount of scope, and with a successful internship you should be able to get a good job.

      Good Luck

  10. I am an S3 Mech drop although had love for Elect. Want to restart and do Mechatronics but due to work part time will be convenient for me but now I see that unisa is scratch out from the institutions can you explain.

  11. I have been doing a degree in BCom Chartered Acoountancy, my life is miserable as we speak and I’m failing and wasting money and time cause since childhood I’ve been obsessed with designing and drawing. I wanted to study Mechanical Engineering but my marks for Physical Science were pretty bad (56%) and my math came out as 62%, I got rejected by varsities, I wanted to do a degree in engineering not a diploma so I ended up choosing CA but honestly I’m not happy because my creative design ideas keep haunting me every day and I don’t focus in class, I would take a pen/pencil and design some cool machine or invention I would like to design to change the world. I’m very interested in Mechatronics, it appears to be the passion I’ve been looking for according to your statement.

    • Hey David,

      I’m sorry to hear you weren’t able to get in for an engineering course, and are not enjoying your current study direction. How far into your CA course are you? If you’re still in your first year, my suggestion would be to study hard (as much as you don’t enjoy it) and try to get good marks. This will help you if you then choose to switch to an engineering degree at the end of the year. If you can show that you work hard, and can succeed at university, they are more likely to let you in regardless of your matric marks.

      Further than that I don’t think I can really help. If you get into an engineering degree, just be warned, it’s not all exciting and design work, lots of the work is quite boring as well, but at the end of the day if it’s something you’re interested in you can work through it.

      I hope you come right, either in switching courses, or finding meaning in your CA course.

      Good Luck

      Gareth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *