As CNC machine tools become increasingly common in the world of manufacturing, more and more jobs advertise for CNC operators, or sometimes CNC machinists. What exactly do those positions require? What is a CNC machine operator, and what do they do on a daily basis?
This article looks at the definition of a CNC operator vs. a CNC machinist and then explains in a bit more detail what an operator is expected to do on a daily basis.
CNC Operations: As Easy As Pushing A Button
In the most basic sense of the word, an operator is anyone who operates a machine. An operator may or may not be a skilled machinist; technically, CNC machining only requires an operator to push a button and start the program.
Because CNC machine tools use a preset program to execute a job, CNC operations really are as easy as pushing a button.
Of course, it’s not exactly that simple. Day-to-day CNC operators are called on to do far more than just initiate the next cutting program and walk away. They may need to troubleshoot, adjust the tooling, or even tweak the program itself.
That’s why some job descriptions will divide CNC operators into three distinct categories.
Three Kinds of CNC Operators
It is helpful to think of three kinds of CNC machine operators.
Beginning operators are button-pushers, your most basic kind of operators. They do little more than turn then load and unload parts and start the machine. They may be beginning machinists, trainees, or interns who are still learning how to navigate a machine shop or production floor, or who have little prior experience working with machine tools.
Set-up operators or programming operators are the next stage up. They typically have a bit more experience with machine tools, and know at least the basics of CNC programming and troubleshooting. They can initiate programs, and have at least basic blueprint reading skills. They can also make at least minor changes to the program to be sure the operation stays on track.
CNC programmers may not be full-fledged machinists, but they require in-depth knowledge of part design and the mechanics of machine tool operation. Most CNC programmers also are familiar with Computer Assisted Design (CAD) programs which allow operators to create a part digitally. CAD programs let operators export those designs to the CNC machine using a vector file.
In some places, each kind of operator will have a clearly delineated role. In many other shops, they are best thought of as different “levels” of operators, starting with entry-level operators and moving up to operators with advanced machining and programming experience.
Operator vs. Machinist: A Question Of Skill and Training
At what point does a CNC operator become a machinist? Perhaps never! In theory, someone could operate a CNC lathe or mill for years, and never have the knowledge base or mechanical aptitude to call themselves a machinist.
A machinist isn’t just someone who understands how to work a computer numerical control system. A machinist is a person with an understanding of manufacturing production technology, the manufacturing industry, quality control procedures, and the basics of several different machine tools.
In other words, a machinist is a certain career path. A CNC operator may be on that path, but while all machinists are likely qualified to be CNC operators, not all CNC operators will become machinists.
A Day In The Life
What does a CNC operator do on a daily basis? The order may vary due to the dynamic nature of most machine shops, but here are just a few of the basics.
– Basic Machine Operation – someone has to push the buttons, load and unload parts, and troubleshoot any problems that may arise. Most operators will do this for a variety of machine tools, from CNC lathes to CNC mills.
– Technical Documentation – before programming a machine, operators will need to review any technical documentation. That could include verifying the correct tolerances, as well as being aware of the physical properties of the raw materials used. Some parts require more documentation than others; parts for the aerospace industry, for example, can have incredibly tight tolerances and need extensive verification.
– Safety Protocols – a machine shop can be a risky place. Protocols are in place for a reason and can include lock-out tag-out procedures as well as proper safety equipment.
– CNC Programming – skilled operators can program a new set of instructions directly, using G-code. They could also opt to use a CAD program to facilitate the process. Knowledge of G-code will let operators adjust programs as necessary.
– Basic Maintenance – most machine shops will observe a strict maintenance schedule with tasks on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Daily tasks are often as simple as removing chips and debris from the bed of the tool and checking proper fluid levels.
CNC Operator Careers
CNC machine operator jobs can be found across a wide range of industries. Aerospace, automobile manufacturing, and even scientific labs all require individuals with the necessary skills to program and operate CNC equipment.
CNC operator job descriptions vary, so be sure to check out any basic requirements. Most basic operator jobs may not even require a high school diploma. If advanced training is needed, many community colleges provide courses to equip trainees with the necessary information and hone their problem-solving skills.
Is a CNC machine operator job on the line for you?