Training as a CNC machinist might seem a bit daunting. There’s a lot to learn, and terms like “g-code programming” or “Cartesian coordinate systems” can sound intimidating. Not to mention that machining itself is a complex and growing field, touching on everything from manufacturing and heavy industry to advanced robotics.
Faced with a heavy learning curve, it’s no wonder that workers don’t rush to train to become CNC machinists. And yet, the market for trained and skilled CNC operators continues to grow.
In this article, we’ll look at what career opportunities are out there for trained CNC operators, the skills you’ll need to learn to operate CNC machinery, and the best way to gain the necessary training.
CNC: a developing field
CNC – Computer Numerical Control – originated back in the 1950s. Then, it was mechanical punch cards directing machine tools to take certain actions. Now, it is advanced computers and Computer Assisted Design programs that control tools capable of entire series of actions, tool changes, workpiece rotations, and countless other specific directions in the course of a single programmed operation.
As one might expect, computers kicked CNC use and development into overdrive. CNC machines today feature ever-more-powerful computers, with a corresponding increase in the range of actions they can take. CNC milling machines used to operate on 3 axes of motion (X, Y, and Z). Now you can find CNC mills with 4 and 5 axes.
What does this mean for any potential trainees? It means that the applications for CNC technology are nearly limitless. Just look at some of the different machines that use CNC technology:
- Milling machines
- Electronic Discharge Machines (EDMs)
- 3D printers
- Waterjet cutters
- Laser engravers
- Plasma cutters
That’s not the entire list by any stretch. Almost any machine tool can be equipped with CNC technology and programmed to take certain actions.
That trend will only continue; notice that 3D printers use very similar technology, meaning that the same principles you learn to run a CNC lathe in a machine shop can be put to use in a lab building 3D printing prototypes.
CNC career skills
What do you need to learn to embark on a career as a CNC operator or technician? There are a few core skills to apply to almost any job that uses CNC technology; then there are a number of other skills that you’ll want to learn at least a little about as you develop your skill set.
G-code is the programming language used by the vast majority of CNC machines. Although there are different “dialects” of g-code depending on the manufacturer of a particular machine, the principles are the same. G-code uses lines of command codes to tell a machine to turn on, to move the tool to a particular position, to power up the tool or cutting bit, to move exactly so far, and so on.
G-code is so-called because, originally, the commands began with “G” and a set of coordinates, telling the machine where to move and initiate the program.
Computer Assisted Design programs have been around for a while. They are often found being used by architects and designers, who use them to translate abstract designs on paper into real-world plans and instructions.
CAD programs, when used with CNC machinery, do the same thing. You can design a part on a CAD program, and use the program to generate a set of instructions to produce that part on a CNC machine.
Other skills to learn
Assuming that you’ll be working primarily with metals, it will be helpful to know something about the properties of the various materials you will encounter. The CNC machinery you operate will respond differently, depending on the material you are working with.
Knowing what a CAD program does is one thing; understanding some of the principles underlying the design and production of a part is something else entirely. Advanced CAD training can increase your marketable skills – and your effectiveness as a CNC operator.
How to train as a CNC operator
A simple search will reveal any CNC training programs at trade schools or dedicated training institutions near you, but CNC training is something best done practically.
If you are interested in learning CNC operation, look for work in the CNC machining sector. Ask about apprenticeships. If possible, try to find access to a small CNC lathe or milling machine; use it to teach yourself principles of CNC operation and expand your knowledge of basic machining.
For dedicated individuals, a career in CNC machining holds great potential. Demand for trained CNC programmers continues to grow, and the field itself is expanding as new technology is integrated with CNC programming.