Chapter IV: "I Was Born With A Plastic Spoon In My Mouth."

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“You’re a what?”

“A plastics engineer.”

“What’s plastics engineering?”

“It’s [insert description].”

“So what do you do as a plastics engineer?”


I’m sure my fellow classmates can relate to the conversation above. I have had this exact conversation too many times to count. UMass Lowell has the only accredited Plastics Engineering Program in the US. There are thousands of companies in the US alone that are involved with plastic materials, but out of the thousands of universities and colleges in the US only 1 school will provide you with an engineering degree specifically for plastics. So how do these plastics companies come to be and flourish without them?


As I explained earlier, the TA facility in St. Albans, VT specializes in producing thermoplastics. There is 1 plastics engineer on site. When I inform my fellow co-workers that I am a plastics engineer we proceed to have the conversation above. Yet, the mixers and operators all know how to operate the extruders, mixers and injection molding machines. They all know how to conduct tests for MFR, tensile, hardness, specific gravity, izod and more. My point is this is exactly what I’m learning in school, but my co-workers didn’t go to school to learn it. So if the common man is able to perform the exact tasks I’m learning in school, does that make my degree…useless?


“Seven years of college down the drain.”


Not quite, I spoke with my boss this week about this very topic (the value of a plastics engineering degree). Yes the operators and mixers at TA can run the machinery and perform the required tests, but when they take a reading or program a machine it’s all based on a set of directions. They don’t always understand why each heating zone of the extruder has a specific operating temp, the significance of a 65 shore A hardness or a 10g/10min MFR. They just know that if it is within the desired specification, it’s an acceptable product.


What happens though when the product is out of spec? Variation is inevitable in any process. While all the machinery in a plant may be built identically to operate identically, they do not. Each machine may run different materials; some materials induce more shear stress than others, ultimately wearing down the screw and barrel, varying the process.


Cue Plastics Engineer! The issue of process variation could be solved in two ways.


First, trial and error, change different processing parameters or chemical formulations in hopes of producing the desired product. This could be extremely time consuming and costly to a company because hundreds, possibly thousands of pounds of material would need to be extruded to see if the changes actually affect the process.


Second, employ a chemist who understands the chemical formulations (most likely develops these same formulations) and a plastics engineer. A plastics engineer has been academically exposed to the theory of plastics processing and the science of the polymer materials in the process themselves. Understanding how the process works, and how the materials being used effect that process puts a company at a serious advantage. Less raw material will be wasted, and less time will be lost reworking the process.


Theory will only bring an engineer so far, the operators and mixers here at TA run these machines everyday, they know the machines inside and out. So they may not know why a process varies, but they do know that “if you do ___ then ___ goes wrong.” That’s what makes a successful team, strong communication between the employees. The operator discovers the problem; the engineers work to solve it.


Now I’m not saying the operators and mixers are lesser people. I’m simply pointing out how the education is similar to mine, but significantly different. Also this is only a small realm of the plastics engineering world, a degree in plastics could take someone in a wide variety of directions.


The professors in the Plastics Engineering Department at UML are extremely passionate about…plastics. They put in a lot of time and effort to construct this one-of-a-kind curriculum because they believe it is both relevant and important to the world.


I open this blog up for discussion; the comments section is now activated. I’m interested in both facutly, alumni and student opinions on the value of a Plastics Engineering degree.


“To be or not to be [a Plastics Engineer], that is the question.”

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R said:

Is that a lot?

ynd said:

Nice to know your experience.
After 3 yrs working, next week i need to send my application.
A master degree in chem engineering.
To load my brain about plastics,additives,extrusion etc.
My undergraduate chemistry wasn't powerful enough to fight in flexible packaging industry :)

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Peraner, Jared L published on August 2, 2011 1:11 PM.

Chapter III: I Solemnly Swear I’m Up To No Good was the previous entry in this blog.

Chapter V: Know Your Role is the next entry in this blog.

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