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Several types of engineering subspecialties exist under the umbrella term "materials engineer." These include metallurgical engineers; ceramic engineers; and polymer, or plastics, engineers.
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, titanium used in aerospace, and military aircraft applications such as bulkheads, fasteners, and landing gear. Metallurgy is the art and science of extracting metals from ores found in nature and preparing them for use by alloying, shaping, and heating them.
Metallurgical engineers are specialists who develop extraction and manufacturing processes for the metals industry. Metallurgical engineers develop new types of metal alloys and adapt existing materials to new uses. They manipulate the atomic and molecular structure of materials in controlled manufacturing environments, selecting materials with desirable mechanical, electrical, magnetic, chemical, and heat-transfer properties that meet specific performance requirements. Metallurgical engineers are sometimes also referred to as metallurgists.
Today, basic ceramic materials such as clay and sand are being used by engineers to create a variety of products: ceramic tiles that shield the space shuttle from excessive heat during reentry (where temperatures reach 3000° F) into the Earth's atmosphere, memory storage, optical communications, and electronics. Ceramic engineers are working with more advanced materials as well (many produced by chemical processes), including high-strength silicon carbides, nitrides, and fracture-resistant zirconias. Like other materials engineers, ceramic engineers work toward the development of new products. They also use their scientific knowledge to anticipate new applications for existing products.
Synthetic polymers (chains of hydrocarbon molecules) represent a huge business, as either the main ingredient or the item itself in aerospace, building and construction, clothing, packaging, and consumer products. In addition, plastics has had a stunning effect on the automotive, biomedical, communications, electrical and electronic fields, in some cases breathing new life into these industries.
Plastics engineers perform a wide variety of duties, depending on the type of company they work for and the products it produces. Plastics engineers, for example, might design and manufacture lightweight parts for aircraft and automobiles, or create new plastics to replace metallic or wood parts that have come to be too expensive or hard to obtain. Others may be employed to formulate less-expensive, fire-resistant plastics for use in the construction of houses, offices, and factories. Plastics engineers may also develop new types of biodegradable molecules that are friendly to the environment, reducing pollution and increasing recyclability.
Plastics engineers perform a variety of duties. Some of their specific job titles and duties include: Plastics application engineers, who develop new processes and materials in order to create a better finished product; plastics process engineers, who oversee the production of reliable, high quality, standard materials; and plastics research specialists, who use the basic building blocks of matter to discover and create new materials.
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