Austin Tsai

The Co-op Life of a Mechatronics Systems Engineering Student

This story was originally published by SFU OLC.

The three places I’ve had the pleasure to work at for my co-op placements: Surrey Fluid Power, FortisBC and Mainroad Contracting LP. Each co-op placement allowed me to develop unique skills to each role, tying the multi-disciplinary philosophy of the SFU Mechatronics Systems Engineering program together. I was able to develop skills in mechanical thinking, electronics troubleshooting and soft skills used in an office environment.

I started my first co-op placement at Surrey Fluid Power, a small family operated business that mainly specialized in gas-hydraulic actuator sales and assembly. Initially, I was responsible for some basic machining work on the milling machine and lathe. I made products ranging from hydraulic manifolds, to an herbal plant racks. Although basic, these tasks allowed me to understand how products are made and allowed the machinist mindset to develop. I transitioned to creating a library of standard drawings in CAD format for products which were commonly made. Taking my experience from working on the shop floor and transitioning it to creating drawings allowed me to understand which clearances and tolerances were vital and which ones could be held more lax. The decimal places for dimensions became more meaningful, and most importantly would allow the company to save money by specifying a value which made sense for the application.

The introduction to working in a large company office environment came from my placement at FortisBC, the largest natural gas distributor in BC. I dealt with the Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) regulatory body numerous times when creating applications for potential projects. Applications would involve creating site plans, creating various diagrams, citing historical OGC records, creating WorkSafe tickets and contacting BC OneCall and creating cover letters for these projects. Dealing with the OGC taught me to deal with strict regulations, and forced me to know the OGC Application manual inside out.

When working on potential projects, I would often contact representatives from different companies to ask technical questions regarding their products for natural gas use or requesting prices in order to compile a project proposal. I learned how to use toolbox software to simulate loading conditions on pipes by soil and potential roads or loads. This gave me a basis for understanding the types of stress that pipes can experience through geological movement. I could begin to understand how material properties for the pipes in ground would relate to handling these stresses, and had the opportunity to conduct my own experiments for measuring plastic weld strength.

I transitioned to Mainroad Transtronic Services as my third and final co-op. A large reason for choosing this position was to have practical experience dealing with electronics and electrical systems. As the SFU mechatronics program is a multi-disciplinary program, I felt that it was only natural to have a similar work experience as classroom learning. At Mainroad one of my main responsibilities was dealing with traffic control systems. Initially I had been assigned to work on a large repair order for intersection conflict monitors which required extensive diagnostic and board soldering skills. I built various cameras for the Ministry of Transportation, learning about networks and how these cameras could be accessed from remote locations. Some of the machining knowledge from my first co-op became very useful, as using bandsaws, drills, taps and measurement tools were very familiar and could be transitioned to building camera housings.

One of the main reasons I chose to enroll in the SFU mechatronics program was because of the vast coverage of mechanical, electronics and software material. I feel that the co-op program is an extension of that ability to experience all these aspects of learning and is a great opportunity to discover the integration of each applied science into what is known as mechatronics engineering.