Metallurgy involves processing and converting metals into usable forms. Metallurgical technicians work in support of metallurgical engineers, metallurgists, or materials scientists. These jobs involve the production, quality control, and experimental study of metals. Metallurgical technicians may conduct tests on the properties of metals, develop and modify test procedures and equipment, analyze data, and prepare reports. During recent years, metallurgists have extended their research to include nonmetallic materials such as ceramics, glass, plastics, and semiconductors. The field of study has grown so broad that it is sometimes referred to as materials science, and technicians are called materials science technicians.
Metallurgical Technician Career History
Metallurgy as an art and as a craft is thousands of years old. Ancient civilizations discovered how to extract metallic elements from rock and create useful metals from those extracts. That essential process occurs to this day in metallurgy.
Copper was probably one of the first metals to be used by ancient craftspeople. Historians know that weapons made from bits of copper were being forged 6,000 years ago in the Near East. Copper, along with lead, was probably also among the earliest metals to be smelted (separated from its ore by means of heating) by early alchemists. The smelting of iron dates back in Egypt to at least 2000 b.c.
Down through the centuries, people who worked with metal were considered both artists and craftsworkers and they relied heavily on trial and error plus inspired guesswork. Medieval alchemists added to our store of knowledge about metals as they carefully studied the behavior, properties, and uses of metals. As years went by, and especially during the 19th and 20th centuries, metallurgy developed into a combination of art and science, involving knowledge of the chemical and physical principles that underlie the properties and behavior of metals.
Metallurgical Technician Job Description
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. Throughout these processes technicians carry out laboratory and on-site testing to ensure proper production flow and to monitor the equipment’s condition and the product’s quality. Other technicians work in laboratories to test and develop new alloys, methods, or equipment to produce existing products. In the metallurgy industry, these activities fall into three areas— production, quality control, and research and development.
Modern techniques for metal production involve complex equipment and require trained personnel, such as metallurgical technicians. They may check production instruments, act as observers, calculate furnace charges, take samples for the production laboratory, and consult with the laboratory about the quality of heats (batches of material that have been through the smelting or refining process). In some settings, metallurgical technicians may help supervise production employees, including crews that operate the furnaces and other smelting equipment and the people who work the machinery that converts metal into industrial or commercial products.
Quality control, both of incoming materials and finished parts, is the responsibility of the metallurgical laboratory. Technicians there use a variety of testing equipment to determine structure, soundness, consistency, and other physical properties of metal materials and products. Among the tasks that they might be responsible for are photographing metal samples with a photomicroscope; examining samples with inspection equipment to detect internal fractures, impurities, and other defects; and testing samples in pressure devices, hot-acid baths, and other apparatuses to determine hardness, elasticity, toughness, and other metal properties.
In metallurgical and materials science research, technicians are part of a scientific research team. They work closely with materials and metallurgical engineers and often, depending on their level of expertise, perform some of the engineer’s duties. They build and test a variety of furnaces to develop new production methods for existing metals and help develop new alloys. They conduct tests to determine heat and corrosion resistance, machinability, workability, and other qualities of newly developed alloys. Metallurgical technicians keep detailed and accurate records, maintain equipment, and monitor stocks and inventories.
These three general areas of activity are, of course, interrelated. They share many concerns and often require similar skills. As the following list of representative entry-level jobs makes clear, technicians employed in metallurgy will often find themselves involved in more than one of these general areas.
Metallurgical laboratory technicians set up equipment, gather and record test results, prepare and mount metal specimens, and polish specimens for microscopic study.
Metallographers study and photograph metal samples under microscopes and metallographs to determine grain structure and other properties and develop photographic techniques to make adequate photomicrographs. They prepare reports about the samples for metallurgical engineers.
Metallurgical observers take samples and record temperatures of molten metal or rolling-mill products in steel-plant operations.
Metallurgical research technicians help with research for production of metals, develop protective finishes, and develop new alloys to withstand specified conditions. They also build and operate special laboratory furnaces for specific needs.
Metallurgical sales technicians maintain inventories at sales facilities and draw up detailed specifications for alloys and metals from warehouses and metal-producing plants, using requirements established by the customer and the company’s technical sales representatives.
Metallurgical Technician Career Requirements
While in high school, prospective metallurgical technicians should take at least two years of mathematics and two of science, including a physical science, preferably chemistry. Physics is also helpful. Although entrance requirements for technical training programs vary, four years of English to develop language and communication skills is recommended. Shop courses of any kind are also helpful, and mechanical drawing classes demonstrate how to read blueprints and drawings.
Although it is possible to become a metallurgical technician with a high school diploma, completion of a two-year metallurgical or materials science technology program is strongly recommended. Two-year programs are available through community colleges and technical institutes. You can expect to take courses in general and analytical chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer sciences, communication skills or English, and social science.
A good program will also include courses in physical metallurgy and metallography (the study of the internal structure of metals and alloys); foundry and metal casting; nondestructive testing; strength-of-materials and physical testing; and process metallurgy, with sufficient laboratory work in each area so that students develop skill in equipment use. Additional courses in industrial instrumentation, analytical spectroscopy, mechanical drawing, and machine tools can be helpful, depending on the area of specialty.
Some colleges and universities also offer four-year programs. Graduates of a four-year program are referred to as metallurgical technologists. If you are interested in a four-year degree, consider entering a metallurgical engineering program even if you wish to become a metallurgical technician or technologist, since an engineering degree offers greater career opportunities.
Metallurgical technicians should have an interest in science and average or better mathematical ability. You must be willing to participate in a wide variety of laboratory work, from operating heavy melting furnaces to handling extremely sensitive instruments, and you should be able to learn the correct techniques for handling and caring for expensive equipment. Also, you must be able to communicate well, both orally and in writing, gather and interpret data, keep meticulous records, and present facts graphically. A wide variety of personality types are needed in this field because of the diversity of opportunities, which ranges from direct contact with people as in supervision or sales to independent laboratory work.
Exploring Metallurgical Technician Career
The specific type of exploring that you might want to do depends on which aspect of metallurgy is most attractive to you. If production is most appealing, you might arrange for an individual or group visit to a foundry, steel mill, or other plant. Although part-time or summer job opportunities in such settings may be limited to menial tasks, this should not discourage you. Having worked at even the most menial job is often viewed by employers as a sign of interest and can be an advantage when applying for future work.
If you are interested in the laboratory or research side of metallurgy, consider visiting an industrial laboratory. Ideally, it would be a metallurgical or materials science laboratory, but a visit to a laboratory in a related industry would also be useful. Metallurgical laboratories are found in a wide variety of companies, including bio-medical firms, automobile manufacturers, and aerospace plants. It may also be possible to visit a research lab at a university with a metallurgical engineering or materials science department. Through such visits, you could see what technicians actually do, observe the equipment they use, and perhaps speak with them about their jobs.
Companies employing metallurgical technicians can be found in a wide variety of industries, including metal producers, mining firms, and the research and development departments of automobile, chemical, computer, electronics, and aerospace manufacturers. Technicians also work in machinery and electrical equipment manufacturing as well as the federal government and some research institutes.
Students who are enrolled in metallurgical and materials science technology programs can learn about job opportunities through the placement centers of their schools. Frequently recruiters visit such schools to meet with graduating students and interview them for future positions. You also can apply to any company directly through its human resources office. You may consider using a private employment agency or the local state employment office, or you could check classified newspaper ads to see where openings exist.
After some years of on-the-job experience, metallurgical technicians who have developed their technical skills usually move on to more advanced positions. Research or quality control technicians, for example, may be assigned to more complex equipment, or they may supervise other technicians. Some representative jobs for technicians that may come through advancement follow.
Metallurgical laboratory supervisors interpret results from metallographic investigations, recommend production procedures and heat-treat cycles, and direct other laboratory functions.
Foundry melters calculate charges to foundry furnaces to make alloys that meet specifications, sample heats for chemical content, and direct furnace operating crews.
Metallurgical troubleshooters perform a variety of tests on parts that have failed in service, to determine liability and ways to improve manufacturing techniques.
Nondestructive inspection specialists determine the presence of internal or external flaws or discontinuities in all types of metals by using X-ray, ultrasonic, electromagnetic, and other types of inspection equipment.
Production supervisors oversee and coordinate various aspects of the manufacture of the finished product. They must be familiar with all aspects of metal production and with the equipment involved.
Technical sales representatives work with engineers and purchasing agents to determine specifications of metals and alloys for particular applications.
Research assistants are part of scientific teams that investigate new metallurgical products. They devise new procedures and equipment under the direction of a research manager.
Mid-level metallurgical technicians earn salaries of about $45,600 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Some technicians, especially those at the beginning of their careers, may earn as little as $29,590 a year, while some senior technicians with special skills and experience may earn more than $78,300 a year. Benefits depend on the employer but generally include paid vacations and holidays, sick leave, medical and dental insurance, profit sharing, 401(k) plans, and tuition assistance programs for further education. If metallurgical technicians belong to a union, their wages and benefits depend on the union agreement.
Metallurgical technicians in research and laboratory activities work in clean, well-equipped laboratories. The equipment at their disposal varies from uncomplicated furnaces and machines to highly sophisticated and sensitive optical and electronic devices.
Metallurgical technicians engaged in production activities spend a good deal of time in mills or foundries. Such jobs frequently involve strenuous or possibly unpleasant conditions. The plants can be hot, wet, and dirty, and there may be sparks, fumes, and gases.
Technicians involved in sales may work from an office or in a wide variety of plant environments. Their work may involve a great deal of travel, including overnight trips.
The metallurgical technician’s work may range from simple, routine tasks to those that are highly complex and challenging. Some more experienced workers may not like the more repetitive aspects of the jobs. Others may find these aspects a welcome relief from their more demanding duties and may even prefer routine work on a regular basis.
Metallurgical technicians occupy a middle ground between university-trained scientists and engineers and skilled trade workers. Some people may find this an awkward position to occupy, but most technicians take great pride in being part of this team. Technicians in the professional areas are often encouraged to join professional societies. In some cases they are required to join a production, office, or technicians’ union.
Metallurgical Technician Career Outlook
Employment opportunities for engineering technicians overall are expected to grow about as fast as the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Metallurgical technicians seeking employment within the materials science specialty may expect opportunities to grow about as fast as the average through 2014, particularly in the professional, scientific, and technical services industries. Within the steel manufacturing industry, employment in all areas, including metallurgical technicians, is expected to decline through 2014 due to consolidation of companies and continued automation in the steel-making process.
Opportunities will be best with companies that are developing better and more efficient methods of processing low-grade ores. As the world’s ore deposits are further depleted, new alloy combinations are being devised. This search for new processes, as well as the operation of current metal production plants, requires the involvement of metallurgical technicians. Also, technicians will be needed as research continues on ways to recycle scrap metal and on the development of nonpolluting processing and cleanup methods.