What Is Plastics Engineering?

Mary McMahon

Plastics engineering is a materials engineering field that focuses on the study of plastics, materials derived from polymers that share a variety of traits. Engineers in this field design new plastics, refine old designs, and study the properties of plastics to find new applications and learn more about them. This work includes employment in the private and public sector with a wide variety of companies and research organizations. Plastics engineers can design new plastics for specific purposes in industrial settings as well as experiment with polymers in the lab to develop new materials in pure research.

Plastic pellets, which are melted down to make other products.
Plastic pellets, which are melted down to make other products.

Polymer materials exhibit a high degree of workability; they can be used in a wide variety of ways and may be used to produce soft and hard materials, brittle or flexible casings, and an assortment of other products that take advantage of the flexibility of plastics. In plastics engineering, researchers determine the chemical and physical properties of plastics. This helps them determine how new plastics can and should be used, and how to improve existing products to address issues like cracking, pitting, or failure under strain.

A plastic box.
A plastic box.

The applications for plastics engineering are very broad, from children's toys to medical implants. A plastics engineer may receive cross-training in other areas, depending on the kind of work needed. Designers of medical products, for instance, need to be familiar with the limitations set on materials used in medical practice and also need to be aware of some pathology and anatomy, as this may be relevant to the design of components used in medical care. Plastic engineers who work on bandages, for example, need to understand wound care.

This work includes not just the development and improvement of plastics, but the study of components used in plastic manufacture and production. These include the equipment used to make raw plastic along with molds and other finishing materials. Plastics engineering also includes the study of additives like colors, softeners, and hardeners to different products, all tooled to deliver specific performance, like a flexible plastic gel for use in shoe inserts, or a hard plastic case to protect objects in shipping.

Careers in this field usually require a degree from a college or university, along with experience in the industry. Students of plastics engineering may be able to pursue internship opportunities to build their resumes for future employment. Membership in professional organizations can also be beneficial, as it may provide access to conferences, trade publications, and other resources an engineer may find useful.

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