Pocobor.

What Does Pocobor Work On?

He doesn’t know, either.

Last week Akbar tackled the idea of whether the word “mechatronics” is effective in describing our field to people. However, that discussion is based on a more fundamental question – what do we actually do (i.e. what is the thing that “mechatronics” or any other word is actually trying to describe)?

Field vs. Application

To answer this question, I think it is important to first distinguish between the tools we use and the purposes we apply them towards. A good analogy might be to consider an engineer at an automotive company. Their field (the collection of tools, techniques and concepts they use to do their job) may be mechanical engineering, but their application (the project that they are working on) is a car. Similarly, I would say that mechatronics describes our field but that our applications may be much more varied.

What Is Our Field?

The literal definition of mechatronics is actually pretty straightforward – our niche lies around the intersection of mechanical engineering, electronics, and software. The semi-coherent pinwheel of death / Venn diagram shown below is a nightmare to parse but actually does a decent job of summing up the different areas that fall within our purview (with the qualification that we work on all of the intersection areas, not just the “Mechatronics” one). However, neither the diagram nor the above definition resonates in any meaningful way with the vast majority of people. Because of this, I think it is probably more effective to evangelize our field in terms of what mechatronics allows us to do as opposed to how we do it.

Mechatronics Pinwheel

Perfectly comprehensible, right?

So, What Do We Actually Work On?

Because we are a consulting firm, we work on a wide variety of applications, from cleantech projects to medical devices to consumer products to automotive systems. However, if I had to pick one common thread that links virtually all of the work we do, I would say that we generally work on making devices and systems smarter. This can involve changing the way a user interacts with something or making the device able to function more effectively independently from the user.

Because saying “make things smarter” is pretty vague, let’s consider some examples. Imagine a house that turns off the lights when people aren’t in the room to save electricity, or a coffee maker that starts brewing your coffee in the morning before you get up so it is ready when you come downstairs. Picture a system that keeps track of your workouts at the gym and helps you track your progress and improve your technique, or even a Segway (by the way, all of these products currently exist). Making products smarter could mean equipping them with better communication technology so that you can control them remotely via a computer or phone. Or it could mean adding sensors to allow them to be aware of the situation around them so that they can respond in the most useful possible way. Finally, it often means integrating motors or other actuators so that the system is able to actually affect the physical world.

At the end of the day, we believe that mechatronics and its applications to smart products can enable a staggeringly broad set of improvements to our quality of life. Our goal is to get other people as excited about it as we are.

Mecha-What?

Over the last year and a half I have talked to many people about Pocobor and mechatronics. These conversations have proved to be more difficult than I expected. Some people (mostly engineers) understand exactly what we do, some people kind of understand, but a vast majority of people only take away that Pocobor is some sort of engineering consultancy and our work is probably complicated and boring.

When we started Pocobor, we knew mechatronics was not a terribly common term outside of our field and we understood we would spend a good portion of our marketing effort on actively educating people about mechatronics. We were, and still are, excited about being on the forefront of evangelizing mechatronics to the world and getting people excited about how mechatronics will shape the future by improving the products and services of tomorrow.  However, we weren’t aware how uncommon the term was, especially since mechatronics is a fairly mature field.

A Little Background…

The term mechatronics was coined over 40 years ago by Tetsuro Mori, a Japanese engineer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechatronics). Today, small microcontrollers are readily available from a variety of manufacturers and cost less than a couple of dollars each. People in the U.S. use mechatronic products every single day, from their cars to their microwaves to their smart phones.  Specific mechatronic engineering programs are even available from many universities, such as Professor Ed Carryer’s program at Stanford University (ME218).

So, What’s The Problem?

Given its ubiquity in our lives, one might think that people would already have a pretty good idea about what mechatronics is. And yet, for the most part, it is still unknown outside of engineering circles. Personally, I think the problem comes down to the word mechatronics itself.

Mechatronics is a portmanteau (portman – wha?) of the words “mechanical” and “electronic”. It makes perfect sense; after all, mechatronics is the blending of mechanical systems with electrical systems and software. The problem is that when most people hear mechatronics they might as well be hearing gobbledygook. It is just a jumble of letters to them. They can’t visualize how the word is spelled or decipher its roots. Even if they do happen to break the word down into mechanical systems, electronics, and software, the conversation still requires a long winded explanation of how these three fields fit together and the services we provide. This makes it difficult for people to internalize and talk about later. But even worse, it makes some people tune us out as soon as we start talking because they think what we are about to say is going to be technical and boring.

So, What’s The Solution?

This is the question we are asking ourselves at Pocobor. We like the word mechatronics. It’s not a word we just made up. It’s a real field and aptly describes what we do. However, we also need to be sensitive to the very real idea that it may be in our best interest to find a word that the general public can understand or can immediately identify with. One such example is Smart Product Design. It’s simple and understandable. However, is Smart Product Design as a term any more informative to the general public about we do than mechatronics? Because mechatronics is still unknown outside of certain circles, regardless of what word or phrase we choose to describe it will still require some explanation. I believe the solution may lie in not the word itself but in perfecting a succinct, understandable explanation..No term can be a silver bullet; there has to be a discussion.

In general, we try to tailor our message depending on our audience (engineer vs. non-technical individual, medical device field vs. clean tech, etc.) and we are  always trying out different ways to best describe Pocobor. Mechatronics is a growing field that is becoming more and more prevalent in our lives. The challenge for us is understanding how to best convey this message.

“Passage for Peace” Demonstration

A picture is worth a thousand words, so a 60 second video must be worth 1,500,000 words (assuming 25 frames per second).

“Passage for Peace”

Now that I’m back from Milan and a little rested, I wanted to briefly explain the concept we exhibited.

From the video you’ll notice that there are two identical stands, each with alternating metal and glass poles.  This exhibit is only a small scale model of a much larger concept, both in physical size and geographically. Each stand represents a much larger monument that will exist in a public space in large cities around the world. For example, one of these monuments could reside in San Francisco’s Civic Center, with another monument located near Paris’s Eiffel Tower.

The exhibit encourages interaction from everyone who passes by and provides the opportunity for people all across the world to interact with one another in the name of “Peace”. The idea is that when someone in one of the cities, for example San Francisco, touches a metal pole, the two adjacent glass poles light up and emit a musical tone. Simultaneously the corresponding glass poles in Paris light up and play the same note played in San Francisco. If someone in Paris then responds by touching the corresponding metal pole being touched in San Francisco (so that in both cities the corresponding poles are being touched simultaneously) the light and tone becomes stronger. If the two remotely connected people hold that touch for a sustained time period (approximately three seconds) the lights will begin to flash signifying a “Peace” event between these two individuals.

The exhibit also provides the ability to make musical chords locally or between cities. There are twelve metal poles, each producing a note in an octave (C, C#, D, D#, E, F, etc.). For example, if three people working together in different cities create a C chord (C, E, G or metal pole one, metal pole five, and metal pole eight) they will hear the C chord as well as see another unique “Peace” event (a light cascade up and down the installation). However the chord needs to be exact in order for a special event to occur. For example, C, E, G, A (pole one, pole five, pole eight, and pole ten) will not produce a special “Peace” event because that combination is not harmonious. The idea is that it is hard to produce harmony, but once you do it is beautiful.

The ultimate idea is that through touch, sound, and warmth (light) people will be able to interact with people from faraway lands in a very personal way to promote “Peace”.