Materials Engineer

The Job and What's Involved

Materials engineers specialise in understanding the structure, properties and processing of a wide range of materials. Materials science looks at why each material behaves the way it does, and materials engineers aim to exploit the properties of a material to make it better, cheaper or more useful. These materials include metals and alloys, ceramics, glass, plastics, rubber, semiconductors, biomedical materials and combinations of materials called composites. Materials specialists need to know what properties each material has and how they might be changed.

Engineers and scientists work on combining or modifying materials in different ways for use in products ranging from cars and aircraft to buildings, bridges, silicon chips, sports equipment and even replacement body parts for humans. They may study alternative and sustainable sources of materials and energy to make processes more environmentally friendly, and look at ways of maximising the use of existing materials through recycling.

Work activities vary from job to job, but may include:

  • Developing methods for processing minerals
  • Studying the structure and properties of materials.
  • Understanding how materials behave under various conditions, such as exposure to climatic conditions, temperature, pressure or stress.
  • Selecting the best combination of materials to use in specific products.
  • Solving problems that arise in the production process or in the finished product.
  • Supervising quality control and helping to make sure that products comply with national and international legal and quality standards.
  • Devising ways of recycling products and components that are no longer useful.
  • Advising production plants on introducing new processes and materials.
  • Advising on inspection, maintenance and repair.
  • Investigating component and structural failures.

They usually work as part of a team of scientists, engineers and technicians from different disciplines. They may also liaise with colleagues from departments such as purchasing and marketing.

Most materials engineers work between 35 and 40 hours a week, from Monday to Friday. Additional hours and overtime, including weekend work, may be required.

They are usually based in laboratories, offices or manufacturing environments and may wear appropriate protective clothing. Traveling to visit sites is often required and some jobs may involve staying away from home in the UK or overseas, for short or long periods of time.

New materials engineers may start on around £20,000 a year.
Experienced engineers may earn around £35,000.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Materials engineers are employed in many different industrial and manufacturing sectors. These include construction, construction engineering, building services, electronics, shipbuilding, aerospace, motor sport, power generation, railways, biomedical engineering, vehicle and consumer goods manufacture, and also newer industries such as nanotechnology and biomimetics (copying, and taking ideas from nature). Career prospects are good as there is currently a shortage of skilled workers.

Employers range from huge multinational companies to universities, government agencies and small research laboratories, and may be based anywhere in the UK. There may be opportunities to work overseas.

Job vacancies may be advertised on recruitment website's and in magazines such as Materials World and The Engineer.

Education and Training

Employers often invest large amounts of money into research and development and normally require highly qualified individuals. A number of UK universities offer three-and four-year BEng and MEng degrees in materials engineering, materials science or materials science and engineering.

A number of other engineering and science-based subjects are acceptable for entry to this profession. Relevant subjects include applied physics, ceramics and glass, chemical engineering, metallurgy, minerals/mining engineering, geology, physics, polymer science and structural engineering.

Graduates whose first degree is not in materials engineering, but who do have a science or engineering degree, may find that relevant postgraduate qualifications open up more opportunities.

The minimum requirements for a degree course are usually at least two or three A levels, normally including maths and a science subject, and five GCSE's (A*-C), or equivalent qualifications. It is a good idea to check entry requirements with individual institutions. Candidates who do not have the required qualifications in science and maths may be able to enter after taking an Access or foundation course.

Alternative routes include studying for HNC/HND courses. The normal requirements for this are one A level or equivalent qualifications such as a BTEC national certificate or diploma in a relevant subject.

The Diplomas in engineering and science may be relevant for this area of work.

Applicants with GCSE's (A*-C) including English, maths and science, may be able to enter this field by training with an employer as an apprentice.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

Combining alternative routes such as an Apprenticeship or BTEC national course with suitable experience and training may provide access to incorporated and chartered engineer status via the Engineering Technician (EngTech) qualification.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Materials engineers usually work towards professional status by becoming either an Incorporated Engineer or a Chartered Engineer. Individuals who do not have a degree or an HNC/HND may begin by gaining EngTech status.

The requirements for registration as a professional engineer have been established by the Engineering Council to ensure that professional competence and commitment is recognised at all levels, from engineering technician and incorporated engineer to chartered engineer.

To qualify as incorporated engineer (IEng), individuals should:

  • Have an accredited undergraduate degree or equivalent qualification.
  • Complete a period of initial professional development, including practical training and professional engineering experience.
  • Successfully pass a professional review.

The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) offers a number of awards to help women who are studying for incorporated engineer qualifications.

To qualify as a chartered engineer (CEng), individuals must:

  • Have an accredited Masters degree, or equivalent qualification
  • Complete a period of initial professional development which includes training and professional engineering experience.
  • Successfully pass a professional review with an interview.

Ideas and technologies change rapidly in this field, and engineers must commit to continuing professional development (CPD).

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You may use life saving skills as part of your day-to-day work.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A materials engineer should:

  • Have excellent problem-solving skills.
  • Have an analytical approach.
  • Be good at science, maths and IT.
  • Be able to plan and prioritise a varied workload.
  • Have good communication skills and be able to explain ideas and processes to people with varying levels of technical knowledge.
  • Work well in a team.
  • Be able to make decisions.

Your Long Term Prospects

A key career choice faced by many materials engineers is whether to specialise in the laboratory, on research and development, or to work on the production and processing side.

With experience, promotion to senior materials engineer or project management roles may be possible. There may also be opportunities to progress into senior general management. There is good potential for overseas travel and experience.

There may also be opportunities to teach and lecture in further and higher education.

Get Further Information

Engineering Council UK (ECUK)
Tel: 020 3206 0500
Website: www.engc.org.uk

Enginuity careers website
www.tomorrowsengineers.org.uk

Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3)
Tel: 020 7451 7300
Websites: www.iom3.org and www.materials-careers.org.uk

Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)
Tel: 01438 313311
Website: www.theiet.org

SEMTA (Sector Skills Council for Science
Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies)
Learning helpline 0800 282167
Website: www.semta.org.uk

UK Centre for Materials Education
Tel: 0151 794 5364
Websites: www.materials.ac.uk
and www.whystudymaterials.ac.uk

Women into Science, Engineering
and Construction (WISE)
Tel: 020 3206 0408
Website: www.wisecampaign.org.uk

Women's Engineering Society
Tel: 01438 765506
Website: www.wes.org.uk

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