Materials engineers develop, process, and test materials used to create a range of products, from computer chips and aircraft wings to golf clubs and snow skis. They work with metals, ceramics, plastics, composites, and other substances to create new materials that meet certain mechanical, electrical, and chemical requirements. They also help select materials for specific products, develop new ways to use materials, and develop new materials.
Materials engineers typically do the following:
- Plan and evaluate new projects, consulting with others as necessary
- Prepare proposals and budgets, analyze labor costs, write reports, and perform other managerial tasks
- Supervise the work of technologists, technicians, and other engineers and scientists
- Design and direct the testing of processing procedures
- Monitor how materials perform and evaluate how they deteriorate
- Determine causes of product failure and develop solutions
- Evaluate technical specifications and economic factors relating to the design objectives of processes or products
Materials engineers create and study materials at an atomic level. They use computers to replicate the characteristics of materials and their components. They solve problems in a number of engineering fields, such as mechanical, chemical, electrical, civil, nuclear, and aerospace.
Materials engineers may specialize in understanding specific types of materials. The following are examples of types of materials engineers:
Ceramic engineers develop ceramic materials and the processes for making them into useful products, from high-temperature rocket nozzles to glass for LCD flat-panel displays.
Composites engineers work in developing materials with special, engineered properties for applications in aircraft, automobiles, and related products.
Metallurgical engineers specialize in metals, such as steel and aluminum, usually in alloyed form with additions of other elements to provide specific properties.
Plastics engineers work in developing and testing new plastics, known as polymers, for new applications.
Semiconductor processing engineers apply materials science and engineering principles to develop new microelectronic materials for computing, sensing, and related applications.
Materials engineers held about 23,200 jobs in 2012. They often work in offices where they have access to computers and design equipment. Others work in supervisory roles either in a factory or in research and development laboratories. Materials engineers may work in teams with scientists and engineers from other backgrounds.
The industries that employed the most materials engineers in 2012 were as follows:
|Aerospace product and parts manufacturing||19%|
|Architectural, engineering, and related services||10|
|Scientific research and development services||7|
|Semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing||6|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||6|
Materials engineers generally work full time. However, these engineers occasionally have to work overtime.
Materials engineers typically have a bachelor’s degree in materials science or engineering, or a related field. Employers also value practical experience. Therefore, cooperative engineering programs, which provide college credit for structured job experience, are valuable as well.
Students interested in studying materials engineering should take high school courses in mathematics, such as algebra, trigonometry, and calculus; and in science, such as biology, chemistry, and physics.
Entry-level jobs as a materials engineer require a bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degree programs include classroom and laboratory work focusing on engineering principles. Many colleges and universities offer cooperative programs in which students gain practical experience while earning college credits.
Some colleges and universities offer a 5-year program leading to both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. A graduate degree allows an engineer to work as an instructor at some colleges and universities or to do research and development. Some 5- or 6-year cooperative plans combine classroom study with practical work, allowing students to gain experience and to finance part of their education.
Many engineering programs are accredited by ABET. Some employers prefer to hire candidates who have graduated from an accredited program. A degree from an ABET-accredited program is usually necessary to become a licensed professional engineer.
Analytical skills. Materials engineers often work on projects related to other fields of engineering. They must be able to determine how materials will be used in a wide variety of conditions and how the materials must be structured to withstand the requirements of those conditions.
Math skills. Materials engineers use the principals of calculus and other advanced topics in math for analysis, design, and troubleshooting in their work.
Problem-solving skills. Materials engineers must understand the relationship between the structure of materials and their properties and means of processing, and how these factors affect the product. They must also figure out why a product might have failed, design a solution, and then conduct tests to make sure the product does not fail again. This involves being able to identify root causes when many factors could be at fault.
Speaking skills. In supervising technicians, technologists, and other engineers, materials engineers must be able to state concepts and directions clearly. When speaking with managers at high-level meetings, these engineers must also be able to communicate engineering concepts to people who do not have an engineering background.
Writing skills. Materials engineers must write plans and reports clearly so that people without a materials engineering background can understand the concepts.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Though licensure is not required to enter the occupation, some states license materials engineers; requirements vary by state. Licensed engineers are called professional engineers (PEs), and licensure generally has the following requirements:
- A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
- A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
- Relevant work experience
- A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam
The initial Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam can be taken after graduation from college. Engineers who pass this exam are commonly called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After acquiring suitable work experience, EITs and EIs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering.
Several states require continuing education for engineers to keep their license. Most states recognize licensure from other states, if the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own requirements.
Certification in the field of metallography, the science and art of dealing with the structure of metals and alloys, is available through ASM International and other materials organizations.
Additional training in fields directly related to metallurgy and materials’ properties, such as corrosion or failure analysis, is available through ASM International.
Beginning materials engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers. In large companies, new engineers may receive formal training in classrooms or seminars. As engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move on to more difficult projects where they have greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions.
Eventually, materials engineers may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a team of engineers and technicians. Many become engineering managers or move into other managerial positions or sales work. An engineering background is useful in sales because it enables sales engineers to discuss a product’s technical aspects and assist in product planning, installation, and use.
The median annual wage for materials engineers was $85,150 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $52,900, and the top 10 percent earned more than $130,020.
In May 2012, the median annual wages in the top five industries employing these engineers were as follows:
|Federal government, excluding postal service||$109,810|
|Aerospace product and parts manufacturing||97,160|
|Scientific research and development services||86,250|
|Semiconductor and other electronic
|Architectural, engineering, and related services||80,080|
Most materials engineers work full time. However, these engineers occasionally have to work overtime.
Employment of materials engineers is projected to show little or no change from 2012 to 2022.
Materials engineers will be needed to design uses for new materials both in traditional industries, such as aerospace manufacturing, and in industries focused on new medical or scientific products.
Materials engineers are in demand in growing fields such as biomedical engineering. Their expertise is crucial in helping biomedical engineers develop new materials for medical implants. Research and development firms will continue to employ materials engineers as they explore new uses for materials technology in consumer products, industrial processes, and medicine.
However, most material engineers work in manufacturing industries which are expected to experience employment declines.
Despite a projected slow growth rate for this occupation, job prospects should be favorable as materials engineers will be needed to fill positions as more experienced materials engineers are promoted or retire. Prospects should also be favorable for those who train in traditional fields of materials engineering, such as metallurgy.
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