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Career Spotlight: Mechatronics Engineer

My name’s Leila Madrone, I’m a mechatronics engineer,
which is a combination of electrical
and mechanical engineering. And I work at Otherlab,
a technology lab in a historic pipe organ factory
located in San Francisco. My project is reinventing
heliostats, the mechanisms that redirect
sunlight onto a central tower in concentrating
solar power fields. Current heliostats are very
large structures the size of a highway billboard. And they’re very expensive
and they use a lot of material. We’re working on much smaller
heliostats that use not very much material,
and are very low cost. Solar power plants don’t get
built if they’re too expensive. If we want the U.S. to rely more
on solar power the price to construct
large solar fields needs to come way down. Our heliostats are
made out of plastic and they’re run by air and your state-of-the-art
heliostat is made out of metal and run
by motors. So what we’re trying to figure
out is how do we make these out of plastic so that they can be controlled
very precisely and last for 30 years. I lead the solar project so I do a lot of project management
and planning and I’m also
a mechatronics engineer so I do the embedded systems and control
for the heliostats. My everyday job is a combination
of designing, building, analyzing
and testing. I get to do lots
of cool things at my job, but one of my favorite things is
taking a model of how we think the heliostat
will move and then actually building a prototype and seeing
how it moves in real life. I got a Bachelor’s at MIT,
and then I went on to get my Master’s there
as well. And while I was there,
I did a lot of hands-on work with robotics, and mechanical
and electrical systems. And that’s what led me
to the work I’m doing now. The salary range for
a mechatronics engineer ranges from $50,000 to the six figures,
as your career progresses. There’s also a trade-off between
working at a small company, where you have more creativity
and independence, and a large company,
where there’s more job security, but also some
more structure. Being a mechatronics engineer
is really exciting because you get to work on all
different parts of a project. You get to do the electrical,
the mechanical, the programming,
the modeling, the testing. And you really get to see a project come from conception
into the real world. To be a great engineer,
you need to love creating and making things. You need to have a sense
of wonder about the world, and you also have to
love solving puzzles. A great engineer will look
at the world and see a problem and be driven to find a solution
for it.

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