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Golden Future for Materials Engineers

Studying materials engineering can help you understand the world around you. Virtually everything we use is made from materials. The bench you sit on. The car you ride in. The window you look out of. The keyboard you type on. Most products are made from a variety of materials, specifically combined to meet the specific needs of the product.

But who creates the materials? And who decides which materials should be combined? Metallurgical engineers, now mostly referred to as materials engineers, apply scientific principles to develop and even invent materials specifically suited for the products people use every day.

"Metallurgy is a field of engineering with a rich historical background, where the practice has almost superceded the science," says Noubar Yemenidjian. He is head of the department of mining and metallurgical engineering at a university.

Materials engineers address the needs of all other engineering and science disciplines, says Georges Kipouros. He is assistant dean of engineering at Dalhousie University. "They all end up with the same question: If only we had something that can...," he says.

"In the old days, the answer was, 'I know a guy who does a lot of strange combinations....' And the sure conclusion was that the person was the one with a background in metallurgical engineering."

Traditionally, metallurgy has involved the study and developments of metals and alloys. Today, the field also includes nonmetallic materials such as ceramics, polymers (plastics), composites (combinations), semiconductors, and novel manufacturing methods such as powder metallurgy. Hence the newer name "materials engineers."

In fact, there are fewer than a dozen departments in North America that still retain the word "metallurgy" in their title, says Kipouros.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, job opportunities for materials engineers will grow about as fast as average through 2016. The handbook also says that jobs will open for those who develop materials in biotechnology, electronics and plastic products.

"[Materials engineering has] the highest percentage growth compared with other engineering disciplines: mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, etc.," says Nitin Padture. He is a professor in the department of metallurgy and materials engineering at the University of Connecticut.

"The reason for this growth is that materials are an enabling technology. As technology grows, so does the demand for highly engineered materials, which are more complex compared with the materials of yesteryear," says Padture.

Evidence also shows that the demand for metallurgists with traditional skills is very strong as well.

"Judging from the phone calls I get every week from recruiters and from colleagues in the industry, the demand for metallurgical engineers is very strong," says Kipouros. "The irony is that the demand is in the very traditional areas of expertise, where the universities have long ago stopped preparing students.

"It is true that the materials area has overtaken the metals processing field, but most of the producing and secondary processing plants still deal with metals," says Kipouros.

Alan Russell is an associate professor in the department of materials science and engineering at Iowa State University. He has similar good news regarding the employment of metallurgical engineers.

"Demand is very strong," says Russell. "Every year, the number of prospective employers hoping to hire bachelor of science graduates in metallurgical engineering is greater than the number of available graduates."

Particular niches with the best growth include the fields of aerospace, independent research and testing services, according to Dan Steiner. He is the director of member, marketing and meeting services for the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society.

It's no surprise that materials engineers are sorely needed. "Everything is made out of some material, and materials engineers are the experts at selecting, adapting and modifying materials to do the task at hand in the best possible way," says Russell. In fact, this is the very reason he was attracted to the field.

Metallurgy is a satisfying combination of both science and application. "This makes it interesting and challenging," says Yemenidjian.

"You should not be happy with just understanding a phenomenon," says Padture. "You should ask the questions, 'What can I do with this? How can I make it better?' People asking questions like these have revolutionized technology.

"Specifically, materials engineers have made cars lighter and more efficient. They have also made different kinds of high-performance materials available to build buildings, bridges, dams. Materials engineers have made computers possible. The heart of the computer, the silicon chip, is a materials marvel," he adds.

"They have also made communications possible. Without fiber optics, we wouldn't have the Internet. Without the advent of high-temperature superalloys and ceramic coatings and lightweight composites, planes would never be able to take off."

And if that were not enough, materials are also making the biotechnology revolution possible. People are living longer and living healthier, but sometimes their body parts can't keep up, adds Padture.

New materials are being invented to replace bones, cartilage, teeth, livers and more.

According to Yemenidjian, specific careers in metallurgy include being a metal producer or fabricator, advanced materials producer or manufacturer of ceramics. You can also find careers in the aerospace industry, biomaterial health fields, microelectronics, consulting and environmental fields.

Russell suggests that students interested in the materials engineering field take all the science and math courses offered at school, especially chemistry and physics.

Padture is confident for the future. "The next few decades will bring even more exciting possibilities for materials engineers. The sky is the limit!"


Materials Information Society
Society for materials engineers and scientists

Materials Science and Engineering Career Resource Center
Learn more about this career field

Michigan Tech
Learn about its program in metallurgical and materials engineering

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