cnc operator vs machinist

CNC Operator vs CNC Machinist: The Differences Explained

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? How is that different from a CNC machinist, and what does each do on a daily basis?

We’ll look at the definition of a CNC operator vs. a CNC machinist, explain the difference between the two, and explore the role each one has in modern manufacturing.

CNC Operations: As Easy As Pushing A Button

In the most basic sense of the word, an operator is anyone who operates a machine. A CNC operator may or may not be a skilled machinist – all they really need to know is how to run a given machine.

And with CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine tools, the actual machine operation is fairly easy. Because CNC machine tools use a preset program to execute a job, CNC operations really are as easy as pushing a button.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Day-to-day CNC operators often need to troubleshoot problems, monitor progress, and change out parts. They may need to troubleshoot, adjust the tooling, or even tweak the program itself.

What they usually DON’T need to do is write an entire program from scratch. That’s the job of a CNC machinist.

Operator vs Machinist

CNC machinists know two things: CNC, and machining. Often, they are trained machinists who learned CNC programming from the ground up as part of their training, or even on the job. CNC machinists combine the technical knowledge of how to program a CNC machine tool with practical machining experience. Together, knowledge in both areas lets them design CNC programs that result in high-end finished products.

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Think of a CNC machinist as a next-level CNC operator. They don’t just know how to turn the machine on and off and some basic programming; they know why the program should include certain operations, and how to create a precision machining program to achieve high-end results.

The Operator-to-Machinist Lifecycle

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.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that many places use the two job titles interchangeably, making little distinction between the job responsibilities of a full-time operator and a full-time machinist.

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Operator vs. Machinist: A Question Of Skill and Training

So at what point does a CNC operator become a machinist? 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.

Becoming a CNC machinist requires far more than how to run a CNC machine tool, or even how to create an accurate G-code program. Instead, 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.

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– 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. Relatively few shops have full-time maintenance technicians, leaving most of the daily and weekly tasks to machine operators.

CNC Operator and CNC Machinist Careers

CNC machine tools are virtually everywhere across the modern manufacturing industry today. Given the flexibility between the two job titles, the practical difference between a CNC operator career and a CNC machinist career often comes down to work experience and presentation.

Some machinists learn CNC programming on the job; some operators pick up the essentials of modern machining from their own years of experience in machine shops and manufacturing floors. A CNC lathe operator with decades of experience across industries from aerospace to scientific labs might rightly be able to call himself a CNC machinist. There are also associate degree programs offered at community colleges that provide more straightforward, formal training.

CNC operators and CNC machinists aren’t opposites; they’re more like stages of growth on the path to machining mastery.

About Peter Jacobs

Peter Jacobs is the Senior Director of Marketing at CNC Masters, a leading supplier of CNC mills, milling machines, and CNC lathes. He is actively involved in manufacturing processes and regularly contributes his insights for various blogs in CNC machining, 3D printing, rapid tooling, injection molding, metal casting, and manufacturing in general. You can connect with him on his LinkedIn.

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