Materials engineers are frequently involved in research, manufacturing, and materials development activities for a wide range of industries, although they can also be found advising government bodies and regulatory agencies, teaching students, training researchers, and undertaking management duties like monitoring budgets, estimating costs and supervising technicians.
The duties of a materials engineer will differ according to working environment and job requirements, but will typically involve the use of mathematic and scientific principles to investigate, understand, modify and control how substances behave and interact with each other. This knowledge allows engineers to select materials for specific products and develop prototypes, as well as developing materials production and processing procedures.
The work of a materials engineer should consider the potential implications for waste or environmental pollution from any product or process, as well making sure products comply with national and international standards.
At the same time, engineers will need to consider other factors such as costs, production times, energy use, material availability and logistics.
The typical duties of a materials engineer include:
- Selecting materials for specific uses in relation to their mechanical, electrical or other properties
- Developing and testing new materials in line with industry or product requirements (such as resistance to corrosion, heat or chemicals)
- Researching existing substances to deliver new materials with improved properties and qualities
- Using computer modelling software to analyse materials data
- Assessing material performance and reaction during use
- Improving materials processing and production techniques – including advising on any alterations required to a plant for new processes or materials
- Monitoring plant conditions and supervising production quality control and other staff
- Identifying potential new applications for new and existing materials
- Assessing the potential environmental and health impacts of existing and new materials and products
- Investigating and solving the causes of material failures or manufacturing problems, including problems with the performance of a finished product
- Advise on inspection, maintenance and repair procedures
- Liaise and share knowledge with colleagues in areas such as purchasing, marketing, technical and scientific support, logistics, manufacturing and management
- Knowledge sharing through publication of research findings in journals, publications and online
- Participating in/leading laboratory research teams
The higher you go in your career, the more you may find yourself moving into a managerial role, which could see you using additional management related skills more frequently than covering the routine responsibilities of a materials engineer.
Materials engineers primarily work in laboratories and offices where they can test and report on their findings, although there may also be times when an engineer is required on site or will need to visit suppliers, manufacturing sites, or clients.
There may also be opportunities to travel overseas, especially if you work for a global company.
Materials engineering roles are available in a broad range of manufacturing and industrial sectors, with employers ranging from small specialist research organisations to large global corporations.
Sectors that employ materials engineers include the power industry, telecommunications firms, sports equipment manufacturers, biomedical engineering companies, government agencies, research institutes, and more.
The annual wage for materials engineers differs according to your experience and location, as well as the pay-rates of different employers, with cutting edge industries often paying more.
However, as a rough guide, materials engineers working in entry level positions in the UK typically earn around £20,000 to £26,000. This starting salary will increase with experience, senior engineers with chartered status commanding salaries of around £60,000.
Most engineers will work between 35 and 40 hours per week, with shift work also sometimes being part of the job requirements.
While the exact requirements of materials engineering differ between locations and employers, there are a few general steps that you can take if you want to become a materials engineer…
1. Get a Degree
You will need to study for a degree in engineering, materials engineering, materials science or another relevant and related engineering field. Getting on a bachelor’s degree course (which is the minimum requirement for many roles) will mean that you will need to study science subjects in secondary / high school and college – with chemistry, physics and mathematics being important.
2. Gain Further Qualifications?
While a bachelor’s degree is a good first step in becoming an engineer, you may wish to study further before embarking on your career. Many engineers continue their studies to MSc or PhD level, specialising further and gaining more expertise and skills in the process. Materials engineering can be a competitive field, with companies investing large sums into research and development, so the more specialised your knowledge, the easier it will be to get a better starting position.
3. Get Experience
You may have opportunities to gain work experience during your studies, but we would certainly recommend that you try to get some genuine on-the-job experience if you can. Not only will you learn by working alongside professional engineers, but you will also get a chance to really see which aspects of materials engineering are best suited to your skills, interests and career goals.
4. Get Certified
Once you have completed and passed your studies, you may want to get certified as an engineer. This will often mean passing a theoretical and practical exam with a certification body. Certification is a good way to prove your knowledge and skills to prospective employers and may even be a requirement for some roles. Some territories will also require you to get a licence to work.
These steps are just the beginning of your journey as a professional engineer. You will want to continue learning and developing your skills (perhaps with the support and assistance of a Professional Institute), improving your career prospects and salary at the same time!
Becoming a materials engineer, like any professional engineering discipline, takes hard work and dedication, so what are the benefits of entering the profession?
1. Transferable Skills
Materials engineering can provide you with a wide range of skills that can be used in different fields, meaning that you can work in a range of different sectors and projects.
2. International Travel
Materials engineering can open up opportunities for travel with your work or even to be based overseas.
3. Make a Difference
Your work as a materials engineer can make a genuine difference to the world around you. Whether it is for healthcare, the environment, transport, defence or manufacturing, your expertise can help solve real world problems.
Being an advanced field with interest from industry and governments, materials engineering can be a very well-paid career, with opportunities in sectors including high-tech industries, research, academia, and government, among others.
There is a level of cross-over between the knowledge, training and qualifications needed for materials engineering and materials science, but they are not exactly the same. Just as the roles of scientists and engineers differ, so do the disciplines of materials science and engineering.
These differences take in the varying focus, responsibilities, and working environments of materials engineers and materials scientists.
Science, including materials science, is primarily concerned with research, but materials engineering is more focused on materials for developing and optimising new products and processes.
Materials scientists identify and create new products for testing, as well as the best methods to do so, while materials engineers work to improve product manufacturing and also modify materials to improve products and processes. As a result, engineers tend to have more management responsibilities as they need to interact with different levels of business.
Materials science is often specialised work conducted in a laboratory setting. Materials engineers, meanwhile, may work in laboratories but can also often be found in offices and at manufacturing plants.
As noted above, materials engineers can be found work in a range of different environments, facilities and industries – each with their own specific specialities and expertise.
These specialities tend to relate to the materials themselves rather than the industries they are employed in, for example:
Ceramics engineers focus on researching ceramic materials that are mostly used for high temperature applications, including for food production, healthcare, space travel, telecoms, and missile production.
These engineers are responsible for developing composite materials and processing them for industries ranging from aerospace and agriculture to construction, energy and food production, healthcare, and marine engineering.
Metallurgical engineers are concerned with the research and development of metallic materials, including alloys that provide improved characteristics for applications in industries including aerospace, automotive, construction, defence, healthcare, telecommunications, and more.
Engineers working with plastic materials seek more efficient and cost effective methods of plastic production as well as developing products with improved characteristics including heat retention, reduced flammability, and resistance to weathering. Their work can be found being used in a wide variety of items, from small consumer goods and furnishings, to building materials and products for the transport industries.
Of course, as a materials engineer, you need to have a thorough understanding of materials and their components to an atomic level. This will differ according to the materials you are specialising in, but there are many skills that materials engineers need outside of their knowledge of science and mathematics.
These less academic skills include:
1. Analytical Skills and Problem Solving
This is at the heart of engineering – being able to apply your knowledge and expertise to solving real world problems.
2. Good Communication
Superb technical data is no use if you cannot present it, both in writing and orally, to fellow engineers and experts as well as those professionals who may not have your scientific knowledge.
3. Commercial Awareness
Being aware of the needs of the market is useful for a materials engineer, particularly in a manufacturing setting. This may also transfer to an interest in a particular product or sector.
You will need to be able to plan and prioritise your schedules and workload –as well as those of others - to meet specific deadlines and targets.
You will need to be able to work with other experts, taking responsibility and ownership of your own tasks and working together make decisions.
6. IT Skills
You will need to have a level of competency in I.T. to produce reports and presentations as well as for other aspects of your work.
Combining scientific and engineering knowledge with problem solving and communication skills, materials engineering is a broad discipline with a range of career opportunities in a wealth of sectors.
Although the exact tasks differ according to industry, material used and the size of the organisation, there are still similarities across the roles. In essence, materials engineers work with different materials to improve their performance and create new materials to improve products and technologies.
This requires an understanding of the properties and behaviours of different substances, raw materials and products. Materials engineers will often specialise in certain materials including ceramics, composites, plastics, and metals.
As well as improving the durability, strength or other desirable properties of an item, materials engineers consider factors such as cost efficiencies and ease of processing and production.
The broad nature of the skills required for materials engineering means that it is a profession that is in demand in a range of industries, organisations and agencies.
Is Materials Engineering Hard?
Materials engineering will take study and dedication to access as a profession, but if you have an interest in science and mathematics, it can provide a well-paid and rewarding career.
Is Materials Engineering a Good Career?
Materials engineering can provide you with a good career with lots of openings at a range of employers. Of course, it takes a degree of training and education to enter the field, but once there it offers great earning potential, a changeable working environment and the potential for travel.
Are Materials Engineers in Demand?
The demand for materials engineers is high due to the range of specialist areas and rapid technological changes in the field. As a result, the future job outlook for materials engineers is good.
What Can I do with a Materials Engineering Degree?
As highlighted in the article above, a materials engineering degree can open up opportunities in a range of industries and organisations, depending on your specialisation. You can also use the degree as a foundation for more study.
What Materials do Engineers Use?
Engineers use a range of different materials, from ceramics and composites to metals and plastics. In fact, engineers work with pretty much every material type known to man.
What are Materials Engineering Responsibilities?
Materials engineers have a range of responsibilities depending on the exact role. They tend to involve using scientific expertise to produce designs, specifications, and processes for the application of materials. As well as scientific expertise and knowhow, these engineers are often required to call on their communication skills, problem solving and commercial expertise. You can find out more about the responsibilities of materials engineers in the main article, above.
What is Composite Materials Engineering?
Composite materials engineering involves working with materials with different chemical and physical properties. These materials are combined to create a new material with properties suited to specific applications.
What is Advanced Materials Engineering?
Advanced materials engineering is taught as a course at many universities. It tends to combine the latest trends in manufacturing processes, design, materials, testing and technology to develop your skills further.