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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 job descriptions 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, their knowledge in both areas lets them design CNC programs that result in high-end finished products.

Contrast this with a CNC operator, whose job is more specialized. 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.

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.

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. An experienced CNC operator with decades of work across industries from aerospace to scientific labs can rightly call himself or herself a CNC machinist.

There are also accreditation and training programs offered at many universities, and specialist associate degrees from community colleges across the United States that provide more straightforward, formal training. For those interested, the coursework is rigorous and financial aid is available to those who qualify.

Conclusion

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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29. Create a Peck Drilling Program in Circular or Rectangular Patterns
Using the Circular or Rectangular Drilling Wizards, you can program the machine to drill an un-limited series of holes along the X and Y planes. Program it to drill straight through to your total depth, use a high-speed pecking cycle, or deep hole pecking cycle. You can program the cut-in depth and return point for a controlled peck drill application to maximize chip clearance.

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20. Change up to 30 tools with compensation, and store your tool offsets for other programs
The MX supports…

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21. Use the optional ATC rack up to 8 tools for milling, drilling, and rigid tapping applications
The CNC Masters Automatic Tool Changer Rack and Tools (US Patent 9,827,640B2) can be added to any CNC Masters Milling Machine built with the rigid tapping encoder option. The tutorial will guide you through the set-up procedure using the ATC tools.

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22. Use the optional Rigid Tapping Wizard without the need for tapping head attachments
When you order your CNC Masters machine, have it built with the optional rigid tapping encoder. You can take any drill cycle program and replace the top line with a tapping code created by the wizard to tap your series of holes up to 1/2” in diameter.

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23. Use the optional Digital Probe to scan the profile and/or pockets of your fun/hobby type designs to write your tool path program and machine out a duplicate of your original design To “surface” scan an object, you can program the probe along the X or Y plane. The stylus will travel over the part starting on the left side front corner of the object and work its way to the end of the part on the right side. Depending on how the stylus moves, it will record linear and interpolated movements along the X, Y, and Z planes directly on the MX Editor.
To “pocket” scan an object containing a closed pocket such as circles or squares, the scan will start from the top front, work its way inside of the pocket, and scan the entire perimeter of the pocket.
Under the Setup of the MX software you will find the Probe Tab which will allow you to calibrate and program your probe. Your “Probe Step”, “Feed”, and “Data Filter” can also be changed on the fly while the probe is in the middle of scanning your object.

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24. Use work offsets G54-G59 for nesting applications
The work offsets offer you a way to program up to six different machining locations. It’s like having multiple 0.0 locations for different parts. This is very useful especially when using sub-routines/nesting applications.

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25. Create a Rectangular Pocket / Slot with our selection of Wizards to help you build a tool path program
The Cycle Wizards for the mill or lathe makes it easy to create a simple tool path without needing to use a CAD and CAM software.
On this Wizard, the Rectangular Pocket / Slots, can be used to form a deep rectangular pocket into your material or machine a slot duplicating as many passes needed to its total depth.

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26. Create a Circular Pocket Wizard
Input the total diameter, the step down, and total depth and the code will be generated.

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27. Do Thread Milling using a single point cutter Wizard

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28. Cut a gear out using the Cut Gear Wizard with the optional Fourth Axis

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19. Disable the axis motors to manually hand crank each axis into place
Easily de-energize the axis motors by clicking [Disable Motors] to crank each axis by hand, and then press [Reset Control] to re-energize the axis motors.

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30. The MX interface can easily be interchanged from Mill Mode to Lathe Mode
Use this interface for your CNC Masters Lathe. It contains all the same user-friendly features and functions that comes in Mill Mode. Simply go to the Setup page and change the interface.

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31. Use Tool Change Compensation or the optional Auto Tool Changer Turret if your application requires more than one tool in a single program
You can offset the length and angle of each tool and record it under Tools in your Setup. The program will automatically pause the lathe’s movement and spindle allowing you to change out your tool, or allowing the optional ATC Turret to quickly turn to its next tool and continue machining.
On the MX interface, you also have four Tool Position buttons. Select your desired T position, and the auto tool post will quickly turn and lock itself to that position.

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32. Use the Lathe Wizard Threading Cycle to help you program your lathe’s internal or external threads in inches or metric

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33. Use the Lathe Wizard Turning / Boring Cycle to help you program simple turning and boring cycles without having to go through a CAM or writing a long program with multiple passes

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34. Use the Lathe Wizard Peck Drilling Cycle to help you program your drill applications or for face grooving

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35. Facing / Grooving / Part Off Cycle Wizards – with Constant Surface Speed
These cycles can be used with Constant Surface Speed allowing the spindle speed to increase automatically as the diameter of the part decreases giving your application a consistent workpiece finish. With CSS built into the wizard, there is no need to break down the cycle into multiple paths and multiple spindle speed changes.

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36. This is our list of supported G and M codes which can be found under Tools > G Code/ M Code List in the MX
If you plan to use a third-party CAM software to generate your tool path program, use a generic FANUC post processor and edit it to match our list of codes. As an option, we also sell Visual mill/turn CAM software which comes with a guaranteed post processor for our machines to easily generate your tool path programs based on your CAD drawings.

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37. Our pledge to you…

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10. Run each tool path independently to study its movement
1. Run the machine on Trace mode. You can run each tool path independently, one line at a time to study the tool path movement on the machine to verify the position of the application and if any fixture/vise is in the way of the cutter’s path.

2. You can also verify your program by clicking on the Trace and Draw buttons together. This will allow you to view each tool path independently one line at a time in the Draw Window.

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2. Clutter Free Interface
The MX is engineered for the CNC MASTERS machine so you do not have to fiddle with a detailed complicated configuration that can be overwhelming. Just load in the MX and start machining!2. Clutter Free Interface
The MX is engineered for the CNC MASTERS machine so you do not have to fiddle with a detailed complicated configuration that can be overwhelming. Just load in the MX and start machining!

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3. Features Tour and Tutorials Included
The Features Tour will give you a quick run-down on all the features the MX can do for you. The Tutorials are easy to follow even for the first time CNC machinist.
Feel free to download the MX on any of your computers. We recommend downloading the MX along with your CAD and CAM software there at the comfort of your office computer to generate your tool path programs. You don’t need to be hooked up to the machine either to test your program in simulation mode.

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4. Navigate and Edit Your Program through the MX interface with Ease
With a few clicks of the mouse or using touch screen technology, you can easily navigate through the MX interface importing saved programs into the Editor from the File drop down menu. Using standard windows features to edit your program you can then lock the Editor Screen to avoid accidental editing, and if you need to insert a line in the middle of a program, just click on [ReNum] to re-number your tool path list.
You can create a program or import CAM generated G-code tool paths into the Editor
The X Y and Z W arrow jog buttons are displayed from the point of view of the cutter to avoid confusion when the table and saddle are moving. You can also adjust your spindle speed and coolant control while jogging each axis.

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5. Feed Hold – Pause in the Middle of your Program
Feed Hold lets you pause in the middle of a program. From there you can step through your program one line at time while opting to shut the spindle off and then resume your program.
You can also write PAUSE in the middle of your program and jog each axis independently while your program is in pause mode.

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6. Hot Keys
Hot Keys is an alternative method to easily control your machine using your hard or touch screen keyboard. One can press P to pause a program, press S to turn Spindle On, G to run a program, Space Bar to Stop, J to record your individual movements one line at a time to create a program in teach mode.

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7. Pick Menu – for conversational mode programming
Write FANUC style G-codes directly into the Editor or select commands off the [Pick] menu and write your tool path program in conversational mode such as what is written in the Editor box. You can even mix between conversation commands and G-codes in the same program.

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8. Pick Menu List of Options
Use commands such as MOVE, SPINDLE ON/OFF, COOLANT ON/OFF, PAUSE, DELAY, GO HOME…. to write your tool path programs in conversational mode.

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9. Draw the Tool Path to verify it before pressing Go
Hit Draw to view your tool path program drawing, check out its run time, or even simulate the tool path in 3D mode. This can be helpful to quickly verify your program before running it. You can also slow down or speed up the drawing or simulation process.
You can also hit Go within the Draw Window itself to verify the cutter’s position on the machine. The current tool path will be highlighted and simultaneously draw out the next path so you can verify what the cutter will be doing next on the program.

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MX Software – Easy to Use, Easy to Learn – Included with your machine purchase
The MX software is designed to work seamlessly with your CNC Masters machine. It is made to work with Windows PC – desktop, laptop, or an all in one – on standard USB. Use it on Windows 8 or 10 64-bit operating systems.
No internal conversion printer/serial port to USB software or additional conversion hardware is used with the MX.

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11. Counters display in Inches or Millimeters – Continuous Feed
1. When running a program, the counters will display a “real-time” readout while the machine is in CNC operation without counting ahead of the movement.
2. The current tool path is highlighted while the machine is in operation without causing slight interruptions/pauses as the software feeds the tool path to the machine. The MX internally interprets a program ten lines ahead to allow for “continuous machining” avoiding slight interruptions as the machine waits for its next tool path command.
3. “Run Time” tells you how long it takes to run your tool path program.

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12. Use the “Go From Line” command to start in the middle of your program
If you ever need to begin your program from somewhere in the middle of it, use [Go From Line] which you can find under Tools. The Help guide will walk you through how to position the cutter without losing its position on the machine.

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13. Exact Motion Distance without over-stepping on an axis while jogging
Use “Relative ON” to enter a specific coordinate to jog any of your axes to an exact location without having to write a program. It’s like using “power feed” but easier. You can jog an exact distance on any of the axes without needing to keep the key pressed down and mistakenly over-step the movement releasing your finger too slowly off the jog button.
Let’s say you need to drill a hole exactly 0.525” using the Z. So you enter 0.525 in the Z box. Next, adjust the JOG FEED RATE slider for the desired feed rate. Then “click once” on the +Z or -Z button to activate the travel. In this case you click once the -Z button first to drill the hole exactly 0.525”. Then click once on the +Z button to drive the axis back up 0.525”.

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14. Teach Mode – Jog Input
You can create a tool path program by storing each point-to-point movement by simply jogging an axis one at a time. Click on either of the Jog Input buttons to store each movement on the Editor Screen. You can then add Spindle ON, feed commands, and press GO to run the new program as needed. This is a great feature to help you learn to create a program by the movements you make on the machine without necessarily writing out an entire program first.

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15. Override on the fly to adjust the Jog Feed to Rapid or the Spindle Speed during the middle of a program
1. Jog Feed and Rapid with Override: You can adjust feeds using the slider from slow minimum 0.1″ per minute to a rapid of 100″ per minute of travel. You can even micro-step your jog as low as 0.01”/min. The [-][+] buttons allow you to fine tune feeds in 5% increments while the program is in motion.
2. Spindle Speed with Override: You can adjust speeds using the slider from a slow minimum RPM to the max RPM according to the machine setup. The [-][+] buttons allow you to fine tune feeds in 5% increments while the program is in motion.

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16. Adjust Counters using Pre-Set if you cannot begin the program from 0.00
In a situation where you cannot begin your cutter at it’s 0.00 location, you can “Pre-Set” directly into the counters by typing in your beginning coordinate. You can press Go from here to run your program. You can also “zero all” or “zero” your counters independently. With one click of the [Return to 0.0] button, all axes will travel back to its respective 0.0 on the machine.

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17. Set and Save your 0.00 position for future runs
Set and save your 0.00 position on the machine. These coordinates will be recorded as the first line of the program in the Editor Screen. Should you desire to return to this program at a later date, you only have to click on the Set Zero Return button. This will command the machine to automatically jog each axis to its saved “set” 0.00 position according to the recorded coordinates at the first line of the program.

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18. Create a “Home” position to clear your application and run multiple times
Let’s say you need to machine one application times 100 pieces. This usually requires a jig to retain that physical 0.00 position. But in this case, you want the program to end with a clearance of the axes to easily switch out the next piece of stock and start again. With Save Home, you have the ability to save this offset (home) position while still retaining your Set Zero position where the machine will mill your part out. Pressing [Save Home] will record this new position under the Set Zero line in your program.
Pressing [Go Home] will jog your axes back to your “saved home” position where you originally pressed the Save Home command. You can also input GO_HOME from the Pick Menu as its own tool path in your program. At the completion of your program the axes will end at your Home position. Replace your part, then press [Return to 0.0] button to allow the axes to return to its zero position, and press Go to start your next run.

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