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Plastics Engineers and Technicians

The Job

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.

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