But who creates the materials? And who decides which materials should
be combined? Metallurgical engineers, now mostly referred to as materials
engineers, apply scientific principles to develop and even invent materials
specifically suited for the products people use every day.
"Metallurgy is a field of engineering with a rich historical background,
where the practice has almost superceded the science," says Noubar Yemenidjian.
He is head of the department of mining and metallurgical engineering at a
Materials engineers address the needs of all other engineering and science
disciplines, says Georges Kipouros. He is assistant dean of engineering at
Dalhousie University. "They all end up with the same question: If only we
had something that can...," he says.
"In the old days, the answer was, 'I know a guy who does a lot of strange
combinations....' And the sure conclusion was that the person was the one
with a background in metallurgical engineering."
Traditionally, metallurgy has involved the study and developments of metals
and alloys. Today, the field also includes nonmetallic materials such as ceramics,
polymers (plastics), composites (combinations), semiconductors, and novel
manufacturing methods such as powder metallurgy. Hence the newer name "materials
In fact, there are fewer than a dozen departments in North America that
still retain the word "metallurgy" in their title, says Kipouros.
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, job opportunities for materials
engineers will grow about as fast as average through 2016. The handbook also
says that jobs will open for those who develop materials in biotechnology,
electronics and plastic products.
"[Materials engineering has] the highest percentage growth compared with
other engineering disciplines: mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, etc.,"
says Nitin Padture. He is a professor in the department of metallurgy and
materials engineering at the University of Connecticut.
"The reason for this growth is that materials are an enabling technology.
As technology grows, so does the demand for highly engineered materials, which
are more complex compared with the materials of yesteryear," says Padture.
Evidence also shows that the demand for metallurgists with traditional
skills is very strong as well.
"Judging from the phone calls I get every week from recruiters and from
colleagues in the industry, the demand for metallurgical engineers is very
strong," says Kipouros. "The irony is that the demand is in the very traditional
areas of expertise, where the universities have long ago stopped preparing
"It is true that the materials area has overtaken the metals processing
field, but most of the producing and secondary processing plants still deal
with metals," says Kipouros.
Alan Russell is an associate professor in the department of materials science
and engineering at Iowa State University. He has similar good news regarding
the employment of metallurgical engineers.
"Demand is very strong," says Russell. "Every year, the number of prospective
employers hoping to hire bachelor of science graduates in metallurgical engineering
is greater than the number of available graduates."
Particular niches with the best growth include the fields of aerospace,
independent research and testing services, according to Dan Steiner. He is
the director of member, marketing and meeting services for the Minerals, Metals
and Materials Society.
It's no surprise that materials engineers are sorely needed. "Everything
is made out of some material, and materials engineers are the experts at selecting,
adapting and modifying materials to do the task at hand in the best possible
way," says Russell. In fact, this is the very reason he was attracted to the
Metallurgy is a satisfying combination of both science and application.
"This makes it interesting and challenging," says Yemenidjian.
"You should not be happy with just understanding a phenomenon," says Padture.
"You should ask the questions, 'What can I do with this? How can I make it
better?' People asking questions like these have revolutionized technology.
"Specifically, materials engineers have made cars lighter and more efficient.
They have also made different kinds of high-performance materials available
to build buildings, bridges, dams. Materials engineers have made computers
possible. The heart of the computer, the silicon chip, is a materials marvel,"
"They have also made communications possible. Without fiber optics, we
wouldn't have the Internet. Without the advent of high-temperature superalloys
and ceramic coatings and lightweight composites, planes would never be able
to take off."
And if that were not enough, materials are also making the biotechnology
revolution possible. People are living longer and living healthier, but sometimes
their body parts can't keep up, adds Padture.
New materials are being invented to replace bones, cartilage, teeth, livers
According to Yemenidjian, specific careers in metallurgy include being
a metal producer or fabricator, advanced materials producer or manufacturer
of ceramics. You can also find careers in the aerospace industry, biomaterial
health fields, microelectronics, consulting and environmental fields.
Russell suggests that students interested in the materials engineering
field take all the science and math courses offered at school, especially
chemistry and physics.
Padture is confident for the future. "The next few decades will bring even
more exciting possibilities for materials engineers. The sky is the limit!"