Plastics Careers:
Plastics is a growth industry with many career options. Dr. Miller discussed some of those careers in this interview. In addition a selection of careers are described on this page.
Design Engineering:
In the early days of designing with plastics, engineers were used to dealing with the constraints of wood and metal. Many times they would use the same designs and cross of wood and put “plastic” for the material to be used for construction. What was gradually understood was the ways that plastics could be used to make parts thinner and lighter than the previous materials. Parts that used to require assembly could now be molded into a single piece with smoother transitions that led to more unique styling to differentiate one manufacturer from another. Knowing how to take advantage of plastic properties is only one part of learning to be a designer.
Process Engineering:
Someone has to figure out how to make all of these plastic items that surround us. The process engineer works with tool engineering and the design engineering groups to turn concepts into reality. The process engineer needs to figure out the equipment needed and the best way to operate that equipment to produce only high quality parts. Knowledge of how materials can be molded or extruded is part of the training that a process engineer needs to learn. Experience will also train the engineer all of the things that could go wrong and how to prevent those things from happening in the future.
Quality Control:
As with government being divided up between different branches so that we have checks and balances, quality control plays one of those roles within a company. There is tremendous pressure in a company to make parts with the lowest cost. This could mean lower cost materials, lower cost tooling, faster manufacturing times and fewer employees. On the other hand, taking short cuts may compromise how much the parts match the expectations of the customer. Quality control is there to verify that manufacturing has satisfied the customer contract by meeting the dimensional and other physical attributes the part should exhibit. Not only will quality control do occasional dimensional checks, but they will also chart those dimensions to look for trends in how parts are manufactured so that appropriate feedback can be given to manufacturing to predict failure through statistics.
Machine Repair:
As with the other skilled jobs that contribute to the operation of a company, this is a key one to controlling costs and production. A machine repairman is someone who fixes the equipment when it breaks down. Depending on the size of the company, this job can be highly specialized or one that one would refer to as a jack-of-all-trades. If you don’t have machine repair people working for your company, you need to call in service people to fix everything that breaks. This could involve days or even weeks of production being shut down. Customers cannot tolerate that kind of service, so you need to have technically competent people that can either fix things themselves or can refer to manuals or service instructions delivered by phone or the internet. When you have a small army of people sitting around for you to fix a machine, you need to be able to respond quickly with the solutions that can get you back into production. This job would require some background in plumbing (including pneumatics and hydraulics), electrical wiring, computers, basic machine controls and safety.
Machine Setup:
This job can be made up of a few different assignments depending on the size of the company. Machine setup can include the following activities:

  • Mold setter – The mold or die that forms the plastic shape will need to be installed to the machine. Molds are made to be interchangeable on a variety of machines so that a company has options on which machine they use since scheduling work loads may not always allow the same piece of equipment to be available upon demand. The mold setter will remove the existing mold by unbolting it and installs the current tooling by the reverse procedure.
  • Auxiliary equipment setup – Often molds will require extra equipment to make a part besides the basic extruder or injection molding machine. This may include a dryer to remove moisture from the plastic before it gets put into the machine. Mold temperature control units that can either heat up or cool down water used to control the heat removable from the molten plastic as it is formed into a part.
  • Grinder – Since thermoplastics can be reheated and reused, a grinder is usually placed by the machine so that any scrap parts or things called sprues and runners can be ground up and introduced back into the process.

These are just some of the jobs that could be accomplished by a machine setup person, but one of the most important is actually starting the plastic forming process once all of the auxiliary equipment is up and running and the mold is installed. Typically a setup person will refer to a setup sheet that describes the basics of what support equipment is used as well as the temperatures the machines should be set at, timer settings, pressures, speeds and any other variables that should guarantee the the parts run as closely to the same as the last time the part was manufactured. The setup person must understand all of the relationships that processing plastic has on the final quality of the part being made.
Besides all of the technical positions it takes to run a plastic fabricating plant, someone has to figure out what business you are in, how many people it takes to make whatever you make, how much it costs to run a profitable operation and how to deal with all of the government rules and regulations a company is confronted with. Management runs all the way from the company president down to the foreman on the manufacturing floor. Usually the foreman will have a small crew of people working for them and the foreman will report to someone whom has higher authority over the operations and that person may report directly to top management or still many other layers may exist in between if the company is large. With proper training, one hopes that anyone in management will have people skills, understand the costs of waste and the product and know how to schedule work efficiently. These are all skills that should be taught in business schools, but so much of management success is dependent on the personality of the person.
Sales and Marketing:
Someone needs to go out and make contact with existing customers as well as find new ones. The sales and marketing group will try to locate the kind of parts that fit into the field of business the company is involved in and best fits the kind of equipment they have to produce those parts.
Testing involves many different aspects of plastics from the creation of the material to the final parts that are produced. Plastics are defined by their physical properties. Some of these tests have names like stress-strain testing, notched impact, heat deflection temperature, differential scanning calorimetry (melt point), thermal mechanical analysis and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy. All of these represent different ways to describe the capabilities of a material, but they don’t run totally by themselves. Someone has to set up the machines, load the samples and interpret the data. Test technicians and engineers are needed for ensuring these tests are done repeatably within a laboratory and between laboratories doing the same type of testing. Parts made from plastics may go through similar testing to make sure that once the parts are fabricated that they represent the expected properties they were selected for. Occasionally some of these tests are also done to make sure the part was made from the right material. There are many companies that specialize in just doing tests on plastics and other raw materials.
Tool Engineering:
Another aspect of engineering is designing the molds and dies that parts are fabricated with. Some tool engineers work there way up through the ranks by first being tool makers. Others study mechanical engineering and learn the job of tool engineer from their co-workers. A part designer will tend to work with tolerances of plus or minus 0.3mm or 0.010 inches on a dimension. A tool designer works in a significantly different world where tool tolerances are 1/10 of those found in the part. The steel fit dimensions are extremely critical to prevent plastic from getting into the wrong area of a part or tool. A tool engineer will work closely with the part designer to develop compromises that make the part easier to fabricate and lower the cost of building the tool.
Tool Room:
Most plastics will have at least some type of tool room for repair of an existing mold or die. Some will have full tool rooms employing a large staff of journeymen tool makers where they will make most of their molds and dies. Having your own tool room will allow a company to make simple repairs with a quick turnaround and obviously save money on routine items. A simple tool room may have only a few work benches and polishing equipment or cleaning equipment used to perform something called preventative maintenance work on molds and dies. Molds and dies get dirty and don’t work as well over time so taking apart the mold and cleaning them will improve the overall life expectancy of the mold and bring part quality back to what it was when the mold was last cleaned. These jobs are often the highest paying hourly within a company, but becoming a journeyman tool maker takes many years of commitment to learn the trade.