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.
A Day in the Life of a CNC Operator
What is a CNC operator?
A CNC operator is an entry-level professional who loads materials into CNC system machinery and controls its parts. Operators work directly with the machine, feeding it the correct resources when it needs them and adjusting the speed of the programs function when necessary. Theyre also responsible for determining the path the machine cuts on and cleaning the product and tools. Afterward, theyre the first to inspect the final product and check if it meets the parameters.
What is a computer numerically controlled system?
Computer numerically controlled machines are systems pre-programmed to shape and create metals and other components for production. The software can command factory machinery to follow instructions, making the production process computer-controlled but still dictated by human users. It can cut, grind, drill and shape a wide range of materials, from plastic to dense metals.
Many fields rely on CNC production. Some of these industries include:
What is a CNC machinist?
A CNC machinist, also known as a CNC setup operator, is a professional who collaborates with operators to ensure the program and production run smoothly. CNC machinists are responsible for programming the machines actions and troubleshooting any mechanical issues. Machinists primarily interpret and use the code created and written by CNC programmers, directing the machines to configure products. Theyre also not directly involved with the materials, taking a supervisory position to aid and direct the CNC operators in their duties.
What is a CNC programmer?
A CNC programmer is a professional who develops product blueprints and creates each part using the CNC system. They determine which tools to use and what settings can ensure precision. CNC programmers then write the program in numerical code, both as instructions for the machinery and the machinist who deciphers it. Programmers also make the lists for what materials each blueprint requires and how much the production needs to meet their quota. When necessary for unique projects or intricate instructions, the CNC programmer assists the machinist in setting up the system for operations.
CNC operator vs. CNC machinist vs. CNC programmer
Theres significant overlap in expectations and duties between these roles, but they differ in many ways as well. Heres a list of four comparison points between the three positions:
Although the three roles collaborate on production and CNC machines, its helpful to think of their overlapping responsibilities as cyclical. The programmer codes the software and determines which materials the blueprint requires, which the operator retrieves and preps for production. Operators then make sure the station is clean and loads materials so the machinist can begin the system of production. Machinists then continue to read and carry out the code for production for the programmers approval.
Another way to distinguish the roles is through their supervisory responsibilities. The operator maintains and oversees the machine, while CNC machinists oversee system operations and the operators who load materials and aim the instruments. CNC programmers instruct the mechanists what to do each day, making them the head of the operation.
The primary skill requirement that separates CNC operators from machinists and programmers is the ability to write and read code for the system software. Machinists require a familiarity with the system and how to read and implement code, but programmers require an in-depth knowledge of how to write the code and specify the machines actions for the needed effects. A machinist also needs a high level of mechanical knowledge to operate and repair the CNC machine tools and parts.
While much of the soft skills required for CNC jobs are similar, like resource and time management, theres a certain level of creative planning and problem-solving required to be successful as a CNC programmer. The blueprints that programmers dissect and prepare code for are often without instruction, so it may require the programmer to develop a solution or method for making the product on their own.
A degree isnt a requirement to work in CNC operations, and most hiring managers primarily look for experience in similar fields. Many employers offer on-the-job training to show CNC professionals how their specific machines function.
You may attend a college or university to earn a degree in CNC machining, which might help you advance more quickly in the industry. Earning a degree may help you gain a promotion as well, since most companies expect you to start as an operator and gain the experience required to become a machinist, and then a programmer. There are also certifications you can pursue that might demonstrate your knowledge, skill set and commitment to the field.
Operator and machinist salaries are often similar, but because of the extra skills and experience required of CNC programmers, they may earn significantly higher salaries. Though there are situations where a company can hire machinists expecting them to do a larger amount of the programming, they typically receive salaries closer to a CNC programmers wage. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median annual salaries for each position as follows:
What is the difference between CNC operator and CNC programmer?
What is the difference between operator and machinist?