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. The material of choice of a given era is often a defining point. Phrases such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Steel Age are great examples. Originally deriving from the manufacture of ceramics and its putative derivative metallurgy, materials science is one of the oldest forms of engineering and applied science. Modern materials science evolved directly from metallurgy, which itself evolved from mining and (likely) ceramics and the use of fire.
A Bachelor of Science (B.S.) program in Materials Science and Engineering typically requires 128 hours. A sampling of the curriculum involves courses in:
- General Chemistry
- Physics: Mechanics
- Thermodynamics of Materials
- Kinetic Processes in Materials
- Analysis of Data
- Design and Use of Biomaterials
Regardless of the degree level, the expectation of the respective college or university’s material science department is to provide graduates with:
- An ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, the sciences and engineering principles to materials systems
- An integrated understanding of the materials science and engineering principles underlying the interrelationships between structure, properties, processing and performance of materials and material systems appropriate to their field.
- An ability to design, conduct, analyze and interpret results of laboratory experiments (including statistical and computational methods) involving the behavior of materials in applications.
- A knowledge of contemporary issues in the context of engineering problems in materials science and engineering.
This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list. The underlying theme of the materials science program is to instill a sense of professionalism and ethics to one’s occupation as a material scientist/engineer.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2012 that the median annual salary was $85,150. The top 10% earned $130,020 in May 2012. The BLS has listed the general category of “engineers” as projected to have a 9% job change rate from 2012-2022. According to the BLS stats, the specific occupation of materials engineer was projected to grow at only 1% for the same ten year period.
Contrary to the relatively low projected growth rate, the BLS stated in 2012 that 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.
Job Duties (partial list)
- Analyze product failure data and laboratory test results in order to determine causes of problems and develop solutions.
- Determine appropriate methods for fabricating and joining materials.
- Plan and implement laboratory operations for the purpose of developing material and fabrication procedures that meet cost, product specification, and performance standards.
- Review new product plans and make recommendations for material selection based on design objectives, such as strength, weight, heat resistance, electrical conductivity, and cost.
- Solve problems in a number of engineering fields, such as mechanical, chemical, electrical, civil, nuclear and aerospace.
- Supervise production and testing processes in industrial settings such as metal refining facilities, smelting or foundry operations, or non-metallic materials production operations.
- Supervise the work of technologists, technicians and other engineers and scientists.
- Replicate the characteristics of materials and their components with computers.
As with any highly technical occupation, particularly where the growth may be limited, it’s prudent to peruse various employment sites that list this profession. By doing so, one will gain a better understanding of the current workforce conditions before narrowing one’s college path into this field of engineering.