Mechatronics blends principles of design and engineering to create the most innovative, economical, appropriate and elegant solutions to engineering problems. Watch engineers and students from NC State University and UNC Asheville put mechatronics into action.

A sculpting or pottery studio might not be the place you would expect to find engineers.

But don’t tell that to Travers Thurman, a junior engineering major at the University of North Carolina Asheville. He's sitting at a bench in the University's outdoor art studio, filing down the rough edges of an aluminum prosthetic that he designed.

This particular piece was created on a computer, and then 3-D printed. The printed model was used to make a mold into which molten aluminum was poured, making the prosthetic piece itself.

“This piece is going to be strapped to the arm,” explains Thurman, as he holds the shiny metal object to his arm. There are loops on both sides that will belt the prosthetic to the arm. 

“Then this plastic piece was 3-D printed and it snaps onto the front. You attach a kitchen utensil or anything else to the front, so you can hold about any tool,” continues Thurman. “An artist and an engineering student came up with this so it was interesting.”

And that’s the point of a newly created program at UNC Asheville. Bringing artists and engineers together to solve problems opens up new possibilities.

“What the art students bring to the table is an understanding of art and design concepts,” says Brent Skidmore, Assistant Professor of Art and Art History at UNC Asheville. “What engineers bring is a different way of looking at something, such as how it might work and function, and how it might be made.”

Skidmore adds that when students from the two disciplines come together and work collaboratively, everyone gains an understanding of each other’s perspectives. Faculty members say employers are demanding this type of understanding from students entering the job market. Recruiters are looking for transferable skills, not just an understanding of a particular process or technique.

Technology, especially 3-D printing, is helping to make this collaboration possible and successful. Intricate objects can be designed on a computer and easily modified before the work is 3-D printed. 

“In the past, if designs were being made by hand, a mold would have to be created and the wax would be poured into the mold,” says Sara Sanders, Lab Manager of the Engineering Design Studio at UNC Asheville. “If something needed to be changed, the entire mold would have to be remade. With computers, if something in the design needs to be changed, you simply change the program and hit print and the mold is 3-D printed in the new form.”

The collaboration between art and engineering is part of a joint degree program between UNC Asheville and North Carolina State University. It focuses on mechatronics, which is a blend of three disciplines of engineering: mechanical, electrical and computer. The goal of mechatronics is to train people to design automated devices in their entirety.

The program is a reflection of the changing workplace. Workers are expected to understand multiple disciplines, and be able to collaborate and work across disciplines.

The program also reflects what engineers call the intrinsic need for beauty. The most sought after objects, whether they are consumer products or buildings, are not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing.

It all comes together when you see the silver device senior Ashlee Overholt made for her mother. To use the device, one places a hand on what is an aluminum block, made to look like a fish. A pen or pencil will be attached to the end. The idea is for users who have limited use of their fingers to be able to write by moving the device with just their hand.

“My mother has arthrogryposis, which means she can’t articulate her fingers very well and I just remember growing up seeing that struggle,” says Overholt, as she closely examines her creation, turning it over in her hands. “I’m thinking this will help her be able to write a little.”

“Technology like that which is used in engineering, is changing our world,” explains Rebecca Bruce, Professor of Computer Science and Associate Director of Engineering. “If we don’t learn to integrate our personal creativity, our love for learning and our use of technology, we are lost. So not only do we belong, but we are an important addition.”

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