Materials Technology: From 3D Printing to Aerospace Technology

airplaneFrom jets and yachts, to boats and skateboards and a million things in between … what do they all have in common? They are all built with “composites”, like carbon fibers and fiberglass. Composites are made of high strength fibers that are stiff and light weight and they are gaining rapid popularity in the manufacturing of aircraft to windmills.

As composite materials disrupt more markets, the demand for composite technicians and engineers is increasing across the country and it is becoming a very attractive career.

What does a composite technician do?

Ever seen an episode of “MythBusters” where they try to destroy something? And when it doesn’t work, they try and try again with different techniques? Well, “let’s face it, one of your jobs could be to break stuff” says Ross Monroe, the department head for Engineering at Edmonds Community College.

Working with the latest composites, you could be responsible for creating parts of that new jet your company is designing and then making sure they are strong enough so they won’t shatter when the plane is 40,000 feet in the air, going at 1500 miles/hour.

Workflow of a composites technician

Workflow of a composites technician

For example, “there’s a new material that the company is trying to evaluate and they don’t quite know how to process it. They hand it to [composite technicians] and they have to figure out how to make it work [to] make samples and test. So, they can be on the cutting edge” explains Mr.Monroe

Owning the central piece of development, technicians are a critical element in making the product a reality.

3D Printing

prosthetic-leg

A prosthetic leg created with 3D printing

Printing a product, like your own key-chain, was a dream just a few years ago. But rapid development in 3D printing has now made it possible to not only create small toys but also medical devices, like prosthetic limbs and braces that are customized for each patient. Printing the product makes it much easier to design and produce as NASA just found out when they created a fuel injector for a rocket engine by printing it in just 2 parts (before printing, it was assembled with over a 100 parts).

A composites technician, knowledgeable in 3D printing is a major asset to any company as they help design and test parts rapidly and keep the company one step ahead of the competition.

Is it easy to get a job?

Over the past few years, as composites make their way into more products, the job availability has grown significantly. And “the growth doesn’t match the projected growth” says Mr.Monroe. As a lot of the people in the aerospace industry grow “older, they are getting ready to retire, so … the turnover is going to allow a lot more opportunities for people who are younger” he explains. “Having those skill sets right now, allows you to put your career forward a couple of spots.”

Even though the composites have taken a foot hold in the aerospace and automotive industry, they are also making significant headway in other industries, like:

  • Construction and Infrastructure
  • Defense
  • Marine
  • Mass Transit
  • Sports
  • Wind Energy

And with the advances in 3D printing, even smaller companies that make customized medical products are getting in on the action.

Aren’t all jobs going to China?

The trend of off-shoring all manufacturing jobs to China and Vietnam is slowly reversing. “Re-shoring”, the new word in industry, means bringing jobs back to the US. NPR reports that dramatic jumps in wages in China (10% over the last year) and other factors are persuading companies to start manufacturing in the US again. GE, Ford, Whirlpool and Boeing have already re-shored significant jobs.

Mr.Monroe elaborates that “one of the reasons Boeing is putting the 777 [airplane] here is because of the lessons they learned in sending it overseas. There’s a lot of hidden costs with doing things overseas, [like] support costs”.

“You know, if you actually look at the studies, the American manufacturing worker is the most productive person in the world out of all manufacturing. And so you might have somebody here in the United States that’s making a higher wage but instead of just drilling holes, they’re running a piece of machinery that drills holes. So they can put through a lot more product in the same amount of time and the total cost can be lower” he continues.

“I think you’ll see manufacturing continue to grow in the United States, I really do” he says reassuringly.

I am excited! How do I get started?

Entering the industry requires at least a 2 year Associates degree in Materials Technology. Community colleges across the country offer programs that meet this requirement.

However, if you want to transfer to a 4-year university to get your bachelors, make sure you ask the community college about it, since all associates are not transferable.

 

 

Ross Monroe is the Department Head for Engineering Technology at Edmonds Community College in Washington.

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