CNC Operator Job Description: Duties, Skills and Career Path
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CNC Operator Job Description
CNC operators (or machinists) are people employed to operate the computer numerical control machines used to produce components in metals, plastics and other materials.
Computer numerical control machines are automated machining tools controlled by a programmable logic controller (PLC).
They use programs to automatically perform different types of machining operations with minimal human intervention.
CNC machines are used in almost every area of the mechanical engineering and metalworking industry, including car manufacturing and shipbuilding.
Examples of CNC machines include turning lathes, milling machines, grinding machines, presses, bending machines, metal spinning machines, weaving machines, welding machines and sheet metal cutting machines (e.g. laser, oxy-acetylene, plasma and waterjet cutting). More sophisticated CNC machines can be programmed to perform a range of different operations in sequence (such as cutting and boring).
The CNC manufacturing process is largely automated. CAM (computer aided manufacturing) software is used to generate the operations that the CNC machine will perform to produce the workpiece (known as the toolpath) from a design developed using CAD (computer aided design) software. The toolpath coordinates are then converted by a CNC programmer (an expert in the programming languages used to control automated machine tools) into instructions that can be read by the machine.
So, what does a CNC machine operator do?
CNC operators are responsible for entering tooling instructions into CNC machines from tooling datasheets, loading the raw material to be machined and setting up the tools (e.g. setting zero and reference points). When the set-up has been completed, the operator starts the machining process, monitoring progress and intervening where necessary to make adjustments or corrections (e.g. to change tools or to reposition the workpiece).
Once machining operations have been completed, the CNC operator removes the workpiece from the machine, performs any finishing operations and removes the swarf. The operator is responsible for checking that the finished piece meets the relevant tolerance specifications and for performing a series of quality control checks. Any defects or issues are reported to the production manager and workpieces that meet the production standards are sent on to the next work step.
In addition to monitoring CNC machining operations and checking that products satisfy the relevant quality standards, CNC operators may also be required to carry out minor maintenance tasks, such as lubricating mechanical components or replacing worn machine tools.
CNC operators mainly work in factories, mechanical engineering plants and machine shops, where they play a key role in overseeing automated production processes. The job of a CNC machinist is physically very demanding, involving long periods spent standing and lifting heavy loads. Machining operations generate high noise levels and can also be hazardous and it is therefore essential that operators comply with all applicable workplace safety regulations and use the necessary personal protective equipment (e.g. gloves, safety shoes, masks, safety glasses and ear plugs).
The working hours of a CNC operator often follow a 2 or 3 shift pattern (including nights) and may vary based on production requirements. CNC operators are frequently required to work overtime and in continuous production plants may have to work on weekends and public holidays.
CNC Operator Responsibilities and Tasks
The main duties of a CNC operator include:
- Loading programs into CNC machines
- Entering initial settings (e.g. selecting parameters, positioning material and zeroing the machine)
- Loading workpieces into the machine
- Monitoring machining operations
- Intervening in the event of malfunctions, breakdowns and machining errors
- Finishing workpieces and performing quality control checks
- Performing minor maintenance tasks to ensuring CNC machines function correctly
How to Become a CNC Operator - Training and Requirements
Employers advertising vacancies for CNC operators typically require candidates to hold a technical high school diploma, preferably with a specialization in engineering or another relevant discipline.
Mechanical and mathematical skills are essential for the role, which requires workers to be able to correctly interpret instructions, to read and understand technical drawings, designs and blueprints and to check that the finished workpieces meet the relevant tolerance specifications. To operate today’s increasingly sophisticated CNC machines, which are driven by dedicated manufacturing software, CNC operators also need strong IT skills. Detailed information regarding the characteristics and features of specific machines can usually be obtained by attending a training course organized by the manufacturer.
In addition to theoretical training, CNC operators also need practical experience of numerical control machining operations. This can be accomplished through an on the job training program, such as an apprenticeship.
CNC Operator Skills and Qualifications
Job adverts for CNC operators typically call for the following skills:
- Mechanical and technical skills Knowledge of how CNC machine tools work
- Ability to configure CNC machine settings
- Ability to read technical drawings and blueprints
- Ability to use key measuring tools
- Attention to detail and methodical approach
- Ability to work as part of a team
- Analytical skills
- Physical strength, fitness, stamina
CNC Operator Career Path
So, what's the career goal of a CNC operator?
A career as a CNC operator may unfold in a variety of directions. One option is to study numerical control programming languages and become a CNC programmer, preparing the instructions that are read and performed by CNC machines. Alternatively, a CNC operator may focus on assuming new responsibilities for coordinating the work carried out in a machine shop and progress to positions such as shift supervisor, department manager and, eventually, production manager.
A further career development option for a CNC operator is to specialize in maintaining machine tools as a CNC maintenance mechanic.
Top Reasons to Work as a CNC Operator
Now, the big question:
Why should you consider working as a CNC operator?
A job as a CNC operator is an excellent starting point for a career in a range of fields, especially industrial manufacturing and mechanical engineering. The job is particularly suited to anyone with an interest in metalworking, mechanics or mechatronics. CNC technology is the cornerstone of industrial automation and the machines are an increasingly common sight in factories, manufacturing plants and fabrication shops. As a result, vacancies for CNC operators are widely available and work is relatively easy to find, even close to home.