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Metals are at the core of every manufacturing society. Parts made from metal are incorporated in a wide variety of products, from steel and iron used in building materials and automobile parts, to aluminum used in packaging, to titanium used in electronic parts.
Metallurgy involves processing and converting metals into usable forms. The conversion of rocky ore into finished metal products involves a variety of activities. After the ore has been mined and the metals extracted from it, the metals need to be further refined into purer forms and fashioned into usable shapes, such as rolls, slabs, ingots, or tubing.
Metals weren’t scientifically examined until the 19th century, but the roots of the science of metallurgy were developed more than 6,000 years before that. As far back as the Stone Age, when tools and weapons were being carved from rocks, people discovered that some rocks were actually nuggets of gold and could be used as a measure of value as well as for jewelry and ornaments. By about 4300 B.C., metals were being melted and molded into usable forms such as weapons. People then discovered that metals could be improved by mixing them with other components (such as blending copper and tin to form bronze). Such mixed metals are known as alloys. Metallurgical discoveries like this helped shape the flow of human civilization.
The modern science of metallurgy dates back to 1890, when a group of metallurgists began the study of alloys. Enormous advances were made in the 20th century, including the development of stainless steel, the discovery of a strong but lightweight aluminum, and the increased use of magnesium and its alloys. In recent years, metallurgical scientists have extended their research into nonmetallic materials, such as ceramics, glass, plastics, and semiconductors. This field has grown so broad that it is now often referred to as materials science to emphasize that it deals with both metallic and nonmetallic substances.
Today the metals industry employs a wide and diverse group of people, ranging from metallurgical engineers who study the properties of metals and discover applications for them, to metallurgical technicians who carry out laboratory and on-site testing to ensure proper metal production flow and monitor equipment. Other technicians work in laboratories to test and develop new alloys, methods, or equipment to produce existing products, while workers in manufacturing and finishing operations convert materials into industrial products.