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.
Plastics technicians are skilled professionals who help engineers, scientists, research groups, and manufacturers design, develop, manufacture, and market plastics products. Plastics technicians may work in research and development or manufacturing. In these settings, they function at a level between the engineer or scientist in charge of a job, and the production or laboratory workers who carry out most of the tasks. Other plastics technicians handle mold and tool making, materials and machinery, sales and services, and related technical tasks.
Plastics Engineer and Plastics Technician Careers 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 position of plastics technician was created by technological developments in the plastics industry that required people with some technical background, but not an engineering degree.
Plastics Engineer and Plastics Technician Job Description
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 importantly, 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.
The duties of plastics technicians can be grouped into five general categories: research and development, mold and tool making, manufacturing, sales and service, and related technical tasks.
Research and development technicians work in laboratories to create new materials or to improve existing ones. In the laboratory, technicians monitor chemical reactions, test, evaluate test results, keep records, and submit reports. They set up, calibrate, and operate devices to obtain test data for interpretation and comparison. As new product designs are conceived, they work on prototypes, assist in the design and manufacture of specialized tools and machinery, and monitor the manufacturing process.
Mold and tool making technicians are a specialized division of plastics manufacturing. Those with drafting skills are employed as mold and tool designers or as drawing detailers. They may also become involved in product design.
Plastics manufacturing technicians work in molding, laminating, or fabricating. Molding requires the technician to install molds in production machines, establish correct molding cycles, monitor the molding process, maintain production schedules, test incoming raw materials, inspect goods in production, and ensure that the final product meets specifications. Laminating technicians are trained to superimpose materials in a predetermined pattern. This process is used to make aircraft, aerospace and mass-transit vehicles, boats, satellites, surfboards, recreational vehicles, and furniture. Laminating entails bench work for small parts, and teamwork for large parts. A reinforced plastics item the size of a shoe box can be built by one person, while a large motorized vehicle for a Disney World ride requires the work of several technicians. Technicians employed as fabricators work with plastic sheets, rods, and tubes, using equipment similar to that used in woodworking. Aircraft windshields and canopies, solariums, counter displays, computer housings, signs, and furniture are some of the products made by fabricators. Basic machine shop methods combined with heat forming, polishing, and bonding are skills used by technicians in this area.
Sales and service technicians are needed in the sales departments of materials suppliers, machinery manufacturers, molding companies, laminators, and fabricators.
Plastics technicians are also important and valued employees in certain related fields. For example, companies that make computers, appliances, electronic devices, aircraft, and other products that incorporate plastics components rely heavily on plastics technicians to specify, design, purchase, and integrate plastics in the manufacture of the company’s major product line.
Plastics Engineer and Plastics Technician Career Requirements
If you are interested in a career as a plastics engineer or technician, 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.
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. The Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) offers general scholarships to students enrolled in engineering programs. Awards range up to $4,000 annually, and are renewable for up to three additional years. Certain branches of the military also provide training in plastics engineering.
For a career as a plastics engineering technician you should investigate programs offered by community colleges, technical institutes, and vocational-technical schools. Some schools include plastics courses as part of mechanical or chemical technicians programs. Another training option is to participate in apprenticeship programs or in-plant training programs while earning a degree. Many companies operate on a three-shift basis; hours can be arranged around class schedules. As part of the learning experience, it is possible to participate in cooperative education or work-study programs. This is a joint venture between the school and the industry where you can work a limited number of hours per month and often receive college credit.
Students who plan to enter the military should investigate branches of service that offer training in plastics. The United States Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Army publish procurement specifications, operate repair facilities, and carry on their own research and development.
Certification or Licensing
Though national certification is not required, SPI has established the voluntary National Certification in Plastics program. Engineers with the required amount of education and experience can receive certification after passing an exam. 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.
Certification is not required of plastics technicians, but also is available through the SPI. As industry equipment becomes more complex, employers may prefer to hire only certified technicians. To become a national certification in plastics certified operator, you must pass an exam in one of four areas: blow molding, extrusion, injection molding, or thermoforming. The exam is open to anyone seeking a career in the plastics industry, and you can now take it over the Internet or at testing centers and community colleges around the country. (See http://www.certifyme.org/ for information.)
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.
Technicians should have good communications skills since they must interact with a variety of coworkers including various engineers, chemists, supervisors, designers, estimators, and other technicians. You must be able to follow both oral and written instructions in order to be able to create a product according to precise specifications and demands.
The hearing-impaired and those with physical handicaps perform well as technicians in areas of research and development, testing, quality control, mold and product design, inspection, and in some production and assembly departments, as well as in sales.
Exploring Plastics Engineer and Plastic Technician Careers
If you are a high school student, you may seek to join JETS (Junior Engineering Technical Society), a program 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, technicians, and their managers. There are also student chapters of SPI and 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.
Plastics engineers and technicians work for the manufacturers of plastic products, materials, and resins. Major plastics employers in the United States include DuPont, General Motors, and Owens-Corning. Some of the top thermoforming companies are in Illinois: Tenneco Packaging, Solo Cup Company, and Ivex Packaging Corporation are a few of them. Michigan has some of the top injection molding companies, including Lear Corporation, UT Automotive, and Venture Industries Corporation. But large plastics companies are located all across the country
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 moldmakers before they move into engineering positions.
For those who receive their plastics knowledge through advanced education, jobs can be obtained through the placement programs of their universities and technical schools. Also, many major companies recruit plastics engineers on college campuses. SPE’s Web site features a database of job openings.
Technicians may find jobs through personnel managers who maintain contact with schools that have ongoing plastics programs. Recruiting agents visit graduating technicians to acquaint them with current opportunities. Experts in various fields are regularly invited to lecture at technical schools and colleges. Their advice and information can provide good ideas about finding entry-level employment.
Student chapters 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.
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.
Experienced and well-trained plastics technicians also have excellent opportunities for advancement. Some manufacturers conduct in-plant training programs, and many provide incentives for technicians to continue their education at accredited schools. An employee with sales or customer service potential is trained in various manufacturing aspects before joining the sales or service division. Those with advanced education may become involved in supervisory or management capacities, quality control, purchasing, or cost estimating. Technicians who are especially creative may work hand in hand with customers as designers of products and molds, or, with advanced training, as plastics engineers.
The median annual salary for materials engineers (the category under which the U.S. Department of Labor classifies plastics engineers) was $69,660 in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $44,090 to $105,330 or more annually. Technician salaries in 2005 ranged from less than $16,640 to $39,650 or more for those who set, operate, and tend molding, coremaking, casting, forging, rolling, extruding, and other machines.
Benefits for plastics engineers and technicians 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.
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.
Working conditions that technicians encounter vary greatly. Research or test laboratories are clean, quiet, air-conditioned, and well lighted. Normal business hours are usually observed, although some overtime may be necessary. Some companies operate more than one shift. No more than normal physical strength is required for most of the work in this profession. High safety standards are uniformly observed. Equipment is well maintained to prevent accidents to machine operators. Cleanliness in the workplace is mandatory. Injection-molding plants are quiet to moderately noisy. Extrusion plants are quiet, clean, and efficient. Machine-heating zones are protected and product take-off or wind-up devices are guarded. Laminating procedures range from clean to extremely messy. Catalysts, solvents, and resins present hazards unless strict precautionary measures are taken to prevent accidents. Compression-molding shops are quiet, safe places to work. Temperatures during the summer can be uncomfortable; molds must be maintained at 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Plastics Engineer and Plastic Technician Careers 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 (USDL) predicts job growth for materials engineers, which includes plastics engineers, to be about as fast as the average through 2014.
Employment opportunities for plastics technicians are expected to decline through 2014, according to the USDL. However, since the plastics industry encompasses so many employment categories, qualified graduates of technical programs should be able to find employment. Those who pursue advanced education and who acquire a variety of skills and talents will have the best opportunities.