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November 04, 2019 Monday 10:53:38 AM IST

' Mechatronics Integrates Green Tech '

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The perfection of German engineering and technology is enabled by innovation, fostered by an education system and life- long learning, according to Prof. Dr. Karsten Schmidt. The professor, having rich industry-exposure, apart from teaching and research experiences, is the Programme Director, Mechatronics at Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences. He had a chat with Sreekumar Raghavan, during a recent visit to Kerala. Excerpts:

#What is the role of a teacher in engineering education?

Despite all the advances in technology, online learning, distance learning, mobile apps and the internet, I believe that the core learning has to happen with interaction between the teacher and the student. That system was developed over a period of 1000 years and for a good reason. The technology and devices are only supportive of such learning taking place in the classroom.  In Frankfurt University, in a Bachelor’s Degree of three-and half years, we provide two years of classroom teaching with lab support, one semester is compulsory internship and also the last semester is devoted to project and thesis. Some universities begin the course with projects, but it may not be good for everyone as basic knowledge is important before undertaking projects.

#In India, a draft new educational policy talks of creating teaching and research universities as well as colleges? Is it a good idea and does it compare with the German or European university systems?

The university system in Germany was influenced by the ideas of German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt who was born in 1769 and died at the age of 90. He felt there has to be unity between teaching and research. According to him, if you want to have good research, you need good students. If you need good students, you need to have good teachers. And good teachers can be got only if you do research in the areas you want to develop competence in. In Germany, we have two types of universities - traditional universities focused on basic or fundamental research such as physics or particles or materials and university of applied sciences that do research for application purposes for industry. Both of them do teaching and research. However, I like the British approach which initially had two types of universities – polytechnics (teaching universities) and research universities. But in 1992, this bifurcation was removed by the government and now, there are only universities. They can decide on whether to take up fundamental research, project work, applied research and the autonomy is given to them. It means equal opportunity for everyone.

#Frankfurt University has a lot of students and faculty from other nations. How do you successfully implement internationalization in the campus so as to attract more students from abroad ?

The most important requirement to have international students in campus is a welcoming culture which is already here in Kerala. Location is also important.  Germany is in the heart of Europe. There has to be a lot of job opportunities to generate exchange of students between countries. There is also an effort to harmonize or streamline the education system in Europe so that a person who graduates from Germany can as well work in France or Belgium or other countries. We have a European common market for goods; we are aiming for that in education too.  Frankfurt University is a medium-sized university with four faculties. A university in Germany has to have at least two faculties.

#People admire German engineering. In your view, what makes German engineering unique?

The strong point of German engineering is innovation. Normally, in most countries, they keep on producing a successful product until it outlives its purpose. However, the German approach is different - as soon as a product is developed, we start thinking of how to make improvisations on it. So, this culture of incorporating new ideas on a continuous basis calls for life-long learning and that is one of the reasons for our success. Then, of course, Germany is ideally located in Europe to serve major markets, sell products quickly, make profits and reinvest, have a highly trained workforce and good infrastructure.

Mechatronics is a pretty old term dating back to the era of computers and electronics. There is an integration of an electronic system, mechanical system which is controlled by microprocessors. The systems became smaller with the invention of micro controllers. A mechanical movement is controlled by an electronic drive and electronic drive is controlled by a micro computer. Mechatronics was basically integration of different systems and best examples are in dishwasher, washing machines, robots and CNC machines. Sixty per cent of all mechatronics applications are in automotive industry. The electronic brake system, ABS, engine control systems, lifting of the windows, closing the roof, etc. in an automobile are driven by mechatronics. You cannot think of artificial intelligence or robotics without mechatronics. The latest research in Germany in mechatronics is related to autonomous driving (driverless cars), and green technology in automobiles. People still prefer internal combustion engines. So, the effort is to make them more efficient and less polluting, more green. It involves mechatronics applications. How you inject fuel into the engine, how you control the emission process, combustion and filtering are all controlled by mechatronics. Mechatronics has now a communication interface and interesting applications in Internet of Things (IoT).

Mechatronics is different from normal engineering which delves deeper into one area of interest. A mechatronics engineer could be a ‘jack of all trades and a master of none’. It is inter-disciplinary and integrates mechanical, electronics, computer science, design and micro-controller technology.

#What will be the impact of driverless cars?

There is a huge gap between what the companies are trying to sell and what the consumers need. For many years, people bought cars, especially in Europe, because they enjoyed driving. So autonomous driving may not have mass appeal.

#Will robots take over much of manufacturing jobs?

When new technologies develop, that leads to disruption and loss of jobs but it is not that big as being portrayed. When I worked in an R&D unit of an automobile firm, I saw that in manufacturing much of the activities were computerized, but in one division I saw five or six people working. I asked my boss why computerization was not done there. He said that technically, it was not a problem to computerize, but quality of the product will suffer if the employees do not have contact with the product they are going to sell. The human touch is important even now to create products of good quality.

# How do you see the move from internal combustion engines to electric in automotive industry?

Internal combustion engines work at only 40% which means 60% of the energy derived from petrol goes to the environment while electric cars work at 90% efficiency. There you have a case for supporting e-vehicles. However, if the electricity that is used to recharge batteries are all drawn from coal or nuclear power, then it doesn’t make any sense. You need to achieve an energy balance. Also, batteries require huge amounts of rare earths which again increases mining activity.

# Is it important to learn German to study and live in Germany?

It is not important to learn German to do engineering course from an academic point of view. But it helps to have better social interactions, if you finally plan to settle down in the country.

Sreekumar Raghavan

Sreekumar Raghavan is an award-winning business journalist with over two and a half decades of experience in print, magazine and online journalism. A Google-certified Digital Marketing Professional, he specialises in content development for web, digital marketing and training, media relations and related areas. He is the recipient of MP Narayana Pillai Award for Journalism in 2001 and holds a bachelors degree in Economics and Masters Degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Kerala University.





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