Careers and Jobs in Chemistry: Plastics Engineers

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Applications of Computer-Aided Manufacturing

FAST FACTS

  • School Subjects: Chemistry, Computer science
  • Personal Skills: Mechanical/manipulative; Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Primarily indoors; Primarily one location
  • Minimum Education Level: Bachelor’s degree
  • Salary Range: $46,120 to $73,990 to $112,140+
  • Certification or Licensing: Required for certain positions (licensing)
  • Outlook: About as fast as the average
  • DOT: 019
  • GOE: 02.07.02
  • NOC: 2134
  • O*NET-SOC: 17-2131.00

OVERVIEW

Plastics engineers engage in the manufacture, fabrication, and end use of existing materials, as well as in the development of new materials, processes, and equipment. The term, plastics engineering, encompasses a wide variety of applications and manufacturing processes. Depending on the processes involved, plastics engineers develop everything from the initial part design to the processes and automation required to produce and finish the production parts.

HISTORY

Thermoplastics, plastics that soften with heat and harden when cooled, were discovered in France in 1828. In the United States in 1869, a printer, John Wesley Hyatt, created celluloid in the process of attempting to create an alternate material to supplement ivory in billiard balls. His invention, patented in 1872, brought about a revolution in production and manufacturing. By 1892, over 2,500 articles were being produced from celluloid. Among these inventions were frames for eyeglasses, false teeth, the first movie film, and, of course, billiard balls. Celluloid did have its drawbacks. It could not be molded and it was highly flammable.

It was not until 1909 that the Belgian-American chemist Leo H. Baekeland produced the first synthetic plastic. This product replaced natural rubber in electrical insulation and was used for phone handsets and automobile distributor caps and rotors, and is still used today. Other plastics materials have been developed steadily. The greatest variety of materials and applications, however, came during World War II, when the war effort brought about a need for changes in clothing, consumer goods, transportation, and military equipment.

Today, plastics manufacturing is a major industry whose products play a vital role in many other industries and activities around the world. It is difficult to find an area of our lives where plastic does not play some role. For example, plastics engineers assisting those in the medical field may help to further develop artificial hearts, replacement limbs, artificial skin, implantable eye lenses, and specially designed equipment that will aid surgeons and other health professionals in the operating room.

THE JOB

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, may develop ways to produce clear, durable plastics to replace glass in areas where glass cannot be used. Others 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: application engineers, who develop new processes and materials in order to create a better finished product; process engineers, who oversee the production of reliable, high quality, standard materials; and research specialists, who use the basic building blocks of matter to discover and create new materials.

In the course of their day, plastics engineers must solve a wide variety of internal production problems. Duties include making sure the process is consistent to ensure creation of accurate and precise parts and making sure parts are handled and packaged efficiently, properly, and cheaply. Each part is unique in this respect.

Computers are increasingly being used to assist in the production process. Plastics engineers use computers to calculate part weight and cycle times; for monitoring the process on each molding press; for designing parts and molds on a computer-aided design system; for tracking processes and the labor in the mold shop; and to transfer engineering files over the Internet.

Plastics engineers also help customers solve problems that may emerge in part design—finding ways to make a part more moldable or to address possible failures or inconsistencies in the final design. Factors that may make a part difficult to mold include: thin walls, functional or cosmetic factors, sections that are improperly designed that will not allow the part to be processed efficiently, or inappropriate material selection which results in an improperly created part.

Plastics engineers also coordinate mold-building schedules and activities with tool vendors. Mold-building schedules consist of the various phases of constructing a mold, from the development of the tool and buying of materials (and facilitating their timely delivery), to estimating the roughing and finishing operations. Molds differ depending on the size of the tool or product, the complexity of the work orders, and the materials required to build the mold.

Most important, plastics engineers must take an application that is difficult to produce and make it (in the short period of time allowed) profitable to their company, while still satisfying the needs of the customer.

REQUIREMENTS

High School

If you are interested in a career as a plastics engineer, follow your school’s college prep program by taking classes in English, government, foreign language, and history. You should take additional classes in mathematics and the sciences, particularly chemistry and physics. Computer classes are also important. You should also take vo-tech, drafting, and other classes that involve you directly with design and manufacturing.

Postsecondary Training

The level of education required beyond high school for plastics engineers varies greatly depending on the types of plastics processes involved. Most plastics companies do not require a bachelor’s degree in plastics engineering. Companies that design proprietary parts usually require a bachelor’s or advanced degree in mechanical engineering. The field of plastics engineering, overall, is still a field where people with the proper experience are scarce—experience is a key factor in qualifying a person for an engineering position.

To pursue an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in plastics engineering, you should contact the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) for information about two- and four-year programs. Plastics programs are sometimes listed under polymer science, polymer engineering, materials science, and materials engineering. Certain branches of the military also provide training in plastics engineering.

Students who plan to enter the military should investigate branches of service that offer training in plastics. The U.S. Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Army publish procurement specifications, operate repair facilities, and carry on their own research and development.

Certification or Licensing

Engineers whose work may affect the life, health, or safety of the public must be registered according to regulations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Applicants for registration must have received a degree from an accredited engineering program and have four years of experience. They must also pass a written examination.

Other Requirements

Plastics engineers need to have good mechanical aptitude in order to develop the plastics parts and the tooling necessary to develop these parts. You must have thorough knowledge of the properties of plastic and of the processes that occur. There are thousands of different materials that you may encounter in the course of your workday. You also must be imaginative and creative in order to be able to solve any problems that might arise from new applications or in the transition / transformation of a mechanical metal part to that of a plastic one.

EXPLORING

If you are a high school student, you may seek to join JETS (Junior Engineering Technical Society), an organization that provides organized engineering-related activities. Through group activities you can gain practice in problem solving, scientific reasoning, and actual real life experience with the real world of engineering.

A high school counselor, science, or shop teacher may be able to arrange a presentation or question-and-answer session with a plastics engineer, or even a tour of a local plastics manufacturer. During these tours, you can observe working conditions and discuss employment possibilities with engineers and their managers. There are also student sections of SPI and the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), which provide opportunities to gain valuable experience and contacts with similarly interested people.

Your high school counselor may also arrange visits to community colleges, vocational-technical schools, and universities that offer technical programs.

You may also be able to find a summer job at a plastics-processing plant to learn the basics and experience the varied areas involved with producing plastics parts.

EMPLOYERS

Major plastics employers in the United States include DuPont, General Motors, and Owens Corning. Some of the top thermoforming companies are in Illinois: Pactiv Corporation, Solo Cup Company, and Ivex Packaging LLC are a few of them. Michigan has some of the top injection molding companies, including Lear Corporation and Venture Industries Corporation. But large plastics companies are located all across the country. According to SPI, the top plastics industry states ranked by employment are California, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, and Illinois.

STARTING OUT

To get a job as a plastics engineer, you will need considerable experience in the plastics industry or a college degree. A variety of starting points exist within the industry. Experienced plastics setup and process technicians can use their skills to advance to engineering responsibilities. Many plastics engineers start out as tool and die makers or mold-makers before they move into engineering positions.

For those who receive their plastics knowledge through advanced education, jobs can be obtained through the career services pro grams of their universities and technical schools. Also, many major companies recruit plastics engineers on college campuses. The SPE Web site features a database of job openings.

Student sections of the SPE maintain close ties with the parent organization. Student members receive newsletters and technical journals, and they attend professional seminars. These contacts are invaluable when seeking employment.

ADVANCEMENT

The advanced training, expertise, and knowledge of experienced plastics engineers allows them the luxury of migrating to almost any position within the plastics industry. Engineers may also advance to supervisory or management positions, for example, becoming director of engineering for their entire plant or division. Further advancement may come in the form of employment at larger companies. Experienced plastics engineers, as a result of their expertise in materials and matching products to applications, are good candidates for sales and marketing jobs. They may also train the engineers of tomorrow by becoming teachers at technical schools or colleges or by writing for a technical trade journal.

EARNINGS

The median annual salary for materials engineers (the category under which the U.S. Department of Labor classifies plastics engineers) was $73,990 in 2006. Salaries ranged from less than $46,120 to $112,140 or more annually.

Benefits for plastics engineers usually include paid vacations and sick days, pension plans, and health and dental insurance. Depending on the size of the company, engineers may be offered production bonuses, stock options, and paid continuing education.

Did You Know?

Plastics play a key role in protecting durable and perishable goods during shipping, handling, and merchandising. In fact, the American Chemistry Council reports that “400 percent more material by weight would be needed to make packaging if there were no plastics, while the volume of packaging would more than double.” Six resins (a solid or semi-solid organic product with no definite melting point) account for almost all of the plastics used in packaging. These include:

• PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is used in soft drink bottles

• HDPE (high density polyethylene), which is used in juice, milk, and water containers, as well as in containers for household deter gents and chemicals

• PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which is used to make packaging for fresh meats

• LDPE (low density polyethylene), which is used to make bottles that must be flexible, as well as create grocery and garbage bags and coating for milk cartons

• PP (polypropylene), which is used for bottle/container caps and lids, for containers that house products that are hot-filled with products (such as ketchup) during the manufacturing process, and for products (such as yogurt) that require incubation during the manufacturing process

• PS (polystyrene), which is used for products such as egg cartons, meat trays, coffee cups, as well as material that protects and pack ages appliances, electronics, and other delicate goods

Source: American Chemistry Council

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Plastics engineers are constantly busy as they deal with people at all levels and phases of the manufacturing process. Dress codes may be formal since plastics engineers interact with customers frequently during the course of a day. Engineers may be required to work more than a standard eight-hour day and also some Saturdays when a specific project is on a deadline. Plastics engineers may work directly with design materials in a laboratory or sit at a computer in an office. They may spend some hours working alone, as well as some hours working as part of a team. They may only be involved in certain aspects of a project, or they may work on a project from the original design to final testing of a product.

OUTLOOK

The plastics industry is suffering from the effects of a slowing economy and higher production costs, but most industries are less likely to lay off plastics engineers than other types of workers. More industries are incorporating plastics into their product lines, which will create more opportunities for qualified plastics engineers. As more plastics products are substituted for glass, paper, and metal products and parts, plastics engineers will be needed to oversee design and production processes. Plastics engineers will increasingly be required to develop environmentally friendly products and processes, and play a role in developing easily recyclable products for certain industries. Many openings will come as a result of experienced engineers who advance to sales, management, or other related occupations within the plastics industry. Those with the most advanced skills and experience, as always, will enjoy the best future career outlook. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts job growth for materials engineers, which includes plastics engineers, to be about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council offers a great deal of information about the plastics industry, and maintains an informative Web site.

American Chemistry Council

Plastics Division

1300 Wilson Boulevard

Arlington VA 22209-2323

Tel: 800-243-5790

http://www.americanchemistry.com/plastics

For information on membership and programs, contact:

Junior Engineering Technical Society

1420 King Street, Suite 405

Alexandria, VA 22314 -2750

Tel: 703-548-5387

Email: info@jets.org

http://www.jets.org

For information about scholarships, seminars, and training, contact:

Plastics Institute of America

University of Massachusetts— Lowell Campus

Wannalancit Center

600 Suffolk Street, CVIP, 2nd Floor South

Lowell, MA 01854-3643

Tel: 978-934-3130

Email: contactus@plasticsinstitute.org

http://www.plasticsinstitute.org

For information on obtaining a copy of Plastics Engineering and information on college scholarships, contact:

Society of Plastics Engineers

14 Fairfield Drive

PO Box 403

Brookfield, CT 06804-0403

Tel: 203-775-0471

Email: info@4spe.org

http://www.4spe.org

For information on careers, college programs, and certification, contact:

Society of the Plastics Industry

1667 K Street, NW, Suite 1000

Washington, DC 20006-1620

Tel: 202-974-5200

http://www. socplas.org

For information on career guidance literature, scholarships, and mentor programs, contact:

Society of Women Engineers

230 East Ohio Street, Suite 400

Chicago, IL 60611-3265

Tel: 312-596-5223

Email: hq@swe.org

http://www.swe.org

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