What is a Materials Engineer?

Materials Engineer(Photo: Kevin Fitsimons, WOSU)

Lee Ann Schwope, Manufacturing Manager/Materials Engineer

What exactly do you do?
Excera sells armor and molten metal handling equipment. We work closely with the Air Force, Army, Navy, and private companies in the armor business. In general, I am responsible for the day-to-day operations, including everything regarding the facility to purchasing. The manufacturing team and I create and implement production plans as well as ensure ISO compliance.

Describe a typical day.
Production means that there is no typical day! Priority number one is to solve any problems/issues preventing shipments. Following that, there is daily support on marketing, sales, and government contracts. We also have regular interaction with the customers and suppliers.

What’s the coolest part of your job?
We are working with a material that was discovered at OSU within the last 20 years and we’re turning it into a saleable product. A lot of materials are discovered, however only a fraction of those materials go into industry; we hope Onnex is one of them.

How do people react when they learn what you do?
Most people are really intrigued by ballistic armor but they don’t ask specifically about Onnex (the ceramic strike plate we manufacture and sell). They want to know about ballistics, and the government, how it affects the war. It often becomes a political discussion, which is not necessarily a bad thing because it proves that engineers do effect the world we live in today and that is pretty exciting!

How did you become a Materials Engineer?
When I first transferred to The Ohio State University, I did not even know Materials Engineering existed. I thought that I wanted to be a Chemical Engineer, due to the fact that I wanted to develop new materials, work on race cars, and learn about composites. I discovered that Chemical Engineers do not actually do that, Materials Engineers do. That’s when I realized that’s what I wanted. Then through two internships, I started to love the idea that you can actually change materials by modifying the composition and therefore make it more suitable for specific applications.

I think when I was in high school, I realized that I wanted to learn how things work. I liked the math, but I didn’t really want to be a scientist. I liked computers, but I didn’t want to be in IT (information technology). I filled out a career guidance questionnaire, and it steered me towards engineering.

What disappoints you about your job?
That we can not make a bigger difference today.

How has your job changed over time?
Materials engineering was big in the 1980s and 90s, when people were discovering new nanotechnologies. Recently, it has changed because it is more focused on products like fuel cells. It is important to discover new technologies; however we need to figure out how to apply the technology to the world we live in today.

How will your job be different ten years from now?
Ten years from now armor companies may be out of business because the world we be at peace; we can hope at least! I am sure new challenges will arise and Excera will apply there technology in other applications outside of armor.

I hope that in ten years engineers have worked with society to successfully integrate multiple forms of geothermal energy into our daily lives.

What are some of the most important skills and abilities needed for this job?
For engineering in general, you have to find some confidence within yourself in order to make a decision and see it through. Problem solving is especially important. Determining where or who can help you to find an answer. For example, say we start working with Titanium diboride; I’m not an expert regarding this material, therefore who do I go to or what book can help me? How do you use the internet or library to find out more?

What advice do you have for people who want to enter this field?
Go for it! Engineering is very rewarding. Once you become an engineer, you can branch out and do other things outside of the typical engineering role. You could go on to medical school. You could go to law school to be a patent attorney. You could go on to be the president and CEO of a company. You could be an engineer for the rest of your life! You could start selling products, for example sales and marketing for some exotic material or medical device. The education is challenging and requires a lot of hard work, nonetheless once you’re done with your four or five years of college, it is worth it.

What do you wish someone had told you before you left high school that would’ve helped you with your career?
I wish someone had told that going away to school and studying engineering was going to be harder than it seems. Not just the class work, but also being away from home, the social side of it, trying to figure out who your friends are. The real world is much different than college. It’s ok if you don’t love studying to be an engineer, however try being an engineer through an internship to see if you really want to have this as your career path. Sometimes figuring out what you do not want to do is the best way to figure out what you do want to do.