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Mechanical Engineers’ Role in Automation and Robotics

Mechanical Engineers’ Role in Automation and Robotics

Robotics systems at work in a manufacturing setting

With the 18th-century invention of the steam engine came the need to develop all types of machinery. This gave rise to a new major classification of engineering that dealt with tools and machines. Mechanical engineering–“the branch of engineering concerned with the design, manufacture, installation and operation of engines and machines and with manufacturing processes”1–received formal recognition in 1847, in the founding of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in England.

Today’s mechanical engineers design, develop, build and test mechanical sensors, devices, subsystems and other machines. They’re often called upon to conduct research and analyze problems, such as equipment failures and difficulties, to determine how the devices they create might help solve them.2

More than a century of progress beyond the steam engine has brought us into the age of industrial automation and robotics: “the use of computers, control systems and information technology to handle industrial processes and machinery, replacing manual labor.”3 Read on to explore the role of mechanical engineers in automation and robotics.

Automation and Robotics

Although we often speak of them in the same breath, automation and robotics are distinctly different pursuits.


Automation is the employment of computer software, machines or other technology to execute tasks otherwise completed by people.3

  • Industrial automation completes physical processes with machines and control systems
  • Software automation utilizes computer programs
    • Business process automation (BPA) formalizes and streamlines business processes
    • Robotic process automation (RPA) uses so-called ‘software robots’ to mimic human actions
    • Intelligent process automation (IPA) uses artificial intelligence (AI) to learn how people perform tasks


This area of engineering uses multiple disciplines to design, build, program and use machines that replicate human activities–that is, robots. These programmable machines “use sensors and actuators to interact with the physical world and perform actions autonomously or semi-autonomously.”3

Benefits of Automation and Robotics in Manufacturing and Industry

The development of automation and robotics continues to provide significant advantages in the world of manufacturing and industry, including these:

Improved Efficiency and Productivity

Depending on the task, a single robot can perform the work of three to five people–and it can work at a constant rate, unattended, around the clock. This increased efficiency reduces production time, so factories can do more, more quickly.4

Enhanced Safety and Quality Control

Automated systems often remove humans from the factory workspace, which protects them from the many safety hazards found there. For that reason, the United States’ Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) promotes the use of automation and robotics in factory settings.5

While human workmanship is often outstanding, automated systems typically complete the manufacturing process with less variation than people do, resulting in greater control and consistency of product quality.4

Cost Reduction and Optimization

In addition to doing the work of multiple people, each robot can function in confined space and be mounted to floors, walls, ceilings, shelves and rail tracks. Because automation optimizes the use of space, reduces scrap and streamlines equipment and processes, it requires less energy than human staffing does. This reduction in carbon footprint and overhead leads to significant cost savings.4

Mechanical Engineers’ Role in Automation and Robotics

Within the broader scope of mechanical engineering, robotics engineers design, build and maintain robots, often programming them to complete tasks that are repetitive, dangerous or otherwise unhealthy for humans.6 Their expertise is especially valuable in manufacturing, mining, automotive and service industries, among others.

In creating and maintaining automated systems, these specialized mechanical engineers are responsible for:6,7

Design and Development of Robots and Robotics Systems

  • Collaborate with developers, fellow engineers, project managers, clients and other stakeholders to understand the requirements and scope of the robotics project at hand
  • Draft blueprints, sketches or other documentation demonstrating proposed ideas and prototypes, modifying them based on feedback and simulation results
  • Design and develop robotic prototypes
  • Construct, configure, test and debug robots and robotics systems

Implementation and Integration of Robots and Robotics Systems

  • Install, operate, calibrate and maintain robots
  • Perform integration testing and maintain quality control
  • Ensure that robotic machines operate safely, dependably and with precision
  • Identify and implement modifications as needed
  • Provide technical support and troubleshooting services for robotic systems

Improvement and Innovation

  • Recommend, develop and implement enhancements and improvements to increase production volume and precision
  • Maintain documentation of development process, modifications, maintenance requirements and other data
  • Assist with cost estimates and project calculations
  • Maintain knowledge of existing and developing technology and trends in robotics

Examples of Mechanical Engineering in Automation and Robotics

The breadth of opportunity for mechanical engineers is vast, as they’re needed to solve problems in and advance nearly every line of industry one can think of. As a sample of the impact that mechanical engineering has already had on automation and robotics, consider these innovations:

Industrial Robotics

Assembly Line Robots8
Before the wide adoption of assembly line robots, manufacturing assembly processes were completed by manual labor or fixed machinery, both of which had their drawbacks. Assembly line robots are faster, more precise and more accurate than humans. Unlike fixed, inflexible machines, they provide flexible automation and can work with a variety of parts or be redeployed for process changes.

Industrial robots are strong at completing assembly processes. They can handle manufacturing tasks by being programmed, guided by a robotic vision system or through a combination of both. Designed to work with parts that are too small, intricate or delicate for humans or fixed machinery to handle successfully, they put parts together, insert screws and pins, and dispense adhesives. For improved accuracy and product quality, integrated force sensors inform the articulated robot about needed changes in pressure and how well the parts are fitting together.

Welding Robots9
Automatic and semi-automatic welding automation processes rely on a welding robot arm that moves the torch along the joint to weld the pieces together. This is faster and more productive than manual welding because robots can work without breaks, creating more welded parts than humans can in an equivalent amount of time.

In an automatic robotic welding system, parts are fed via a conveyor or a magazine, then clamped in position for the robot to weld. That done, operators move them to be inspected, assembled or packaged. In a semi-automatic robotic welding system, an operator enters the robot cell, removes the completed weld and positions the next pieces to be robotically welded.

Automated Material Handling Systems

Conveyor Systems10
These fast, efficient mechanical handling systems automatically transport loads and materials within a prescribed area–think of moving walkways in airports or checkout conveyors in grocery stores. Using a belt, wheels, rollers or a chain to transport objects, they’re especially useful in helping to move bulky or heavy items. Among the several benefits they deliver, they reduce human error, workplace risks and labor costs.

A typical conveyor system consists of a belt stretched across multiple pulleys. The belt forms a closed loop around the pulleys so it can rotate continually. One pulley, called the drive pulley, drives or tows the belt, moving items from one place to another. A rotor usually powers the drive pulley and belt. The friction between the two surfaces keeps the belt attached to the rotor. For the belt to move effectively, the drive pulley and idler have to run in the same direction–clockwise or counterclockwise.

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)11
Most often, AS/RS are computer-controlled methods for automatically placing and retrieving loads in and from set storage locations. These combinations of equipment and controls precisely and quickly handle, store and retrieve materials as needed under a set degree of automation. They vary in size from smaller automated systems to larger, computer-controlled ones that are completely integrated into a manufacturing and/or distribution process.

It's typical to find them used in these industries, among others:

  • Automotive
  • Electronics
  • E-commerce
  • Food and beverage
  • Hazmat
  • Hospital, pharmaceutical, medical devices and equipment
  • Jewelry
  • Life sciences
  • Manufacturing, warehousing and distribution
  • Maintenance and repair operations (MRO)
  • Paper
  • Plastics
  • Spare parts handling

Control Systems

Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs)12
Businesses around the globe use these tiny computers to automate their essential processes; they’re the most-used industrial control technology worldwide. Before the mid-20th century, industrial setups relied on manual relay-based control systems that were complicated and prone to fail. In the 1960s, inventor Richard Morley introduced the first PLCs as an alternative.

Tasked with controlling system functions using the internal logic programmed into them, PLCs receive data through their inputs (automated data-capture points or human input points such as switches or buttons) and send operating instructions through their outputs. Outputs can control motors, solenoid valves, lights, switchgears, safety shut-offs and many other forms of equipment.

Human-Machine Interface (HMI) Systems13,14
These systems of devices or software applications enable humans to engage and interact with machines. Put more simply, they’re dashboards, keyboards or screens used to control machinery. They’re essential to the effective running of factories and manufacturing operations.

Industrial line operators, managers and supervisors who need to control and automate their machinery, and to ensure that it’s working properly, use HMIs to translate complex data into useful information. User-friendly visual displays make nearly real-time information easy to understand, so staff and management can smoothly monitor tank levels, pressure and vibration measurements, motor and valve status and other variables.

Make Your Mark on Modern Industry

You’re an innovative problem-solver with ambitious goals. To gain the advanced acumen and skills needed to make your career stand out, earn Case Western Reserve University’s online Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Take advantage of the expert faculty’s vast research experience and the flexibility of 100% online learning. You’ll benefit from professional support, including entrepreneurial opportunities through CWRU LaunchNet.

Don’t wait to find out more about this career-changing master’s degree. Schedule a call with one of our admissions outreach advisors today.

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