two cnc machinists working together on a projectcnc machinist making sure his cnc machine is fuctioning correctly

What Is A CNC Machinist And What Do They Do?

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A CNC Machinist is a skilled trade professional who is well versed in the setting up and operation of Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines that are used most often in the manufacturing process. These machines may be used in the construction of parts and finished goods for many different industries. Just some of the industries that rely heavily on the CNC machinist are the automotive industry, manufacturing industry, as well as any industry involved in the making of products.CNC Machinists must learn to work in vastly different materials, as well as numerous different processes. Each type of material, its strength and physical characteristics can determine different methods that the machines must accommodate in order to produce the precise types of specifications and cuts required by the blue prints and measurements required by the finished product, be that a tool, a part or an entire consumer good.  Significant factors can vary based on materials properties, so a CNC machinist technician is often well versed in a great many materials, and the reactions that can result from the use of the specific materials characteristics.  Just some of the common materials used are metals and plastics.

cnc machinist at work

With the use of differing metals a CNC machinist will need to understand the precise chemical makeup and the resulting results that the machines process will have during its operation.  Determining if the metal is a ferrous, or non-ferrous metal or alloy will make significant difference in the machines programming requirements. If heat is used during the cutting process this will also have an effect on both metal or plastic, requiring the CNC machinists to know in advance what reactions to expect and anticipate.   Some of the most common types of machines used in CNC machine tooling are lathes and mills.  These machines are connected to servo-motors which are in turn controlled via the computer program that represents the NC of CNC, which is numerical control.  Computer numerical control is simply another way of describing the automation process of machine tools.

cnc operator programming jobPrior to the development of computer numeric controls where programs are abstractly coded with commands on a computer machinists used to be required to manually operate lathes, levers, or hand wheels in the production of tools and goods.  CNC machined pieces require the precision of not only just one cut, but often many different cuts, to exact specifications and often cut at vastly different positions and angles.  The rotating of the piece is generally also programed into the computer program by a CNC machinist.

With the job of a CNC machinist being made up of extremely precise and detailed designs, the individuals who are looking to enter the profession as a CNC machinist technician are required to first complete a degree or technical program in which they have a very specialized curriculum.  It’s most advisable for candidates to have very strong math and computation skills, superior mechanical reasoning and high attention to detail; having strong hand eye coordination is also of great benefit to the aspiring CNC machinist.

cnc machining large scale factoryThose enrolled in a CNC machinist training program can expect to take a set curriculum of classes that span the breadth of mathematics, CNC essentials, machine tool blueprint reading, feeds, speeds and advanced cutting tools, fundamentals of both arc and gas welding, machine theory, drafting classes in CAD (Computer Aided Design), in CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing), 2D CAD, Master CAM, electrical discharge machining for both RAM and wire, gas metal arc welding (MIG), CNC lathe, G&M Programming, CNC Machining as well as supplementary classes.  Some supplemental courses can be in applied statistical process controls, advance plastic mold designs and constructions, characteristics of metals, physics and mechanics, heat treatment of alloys, inspection techniques, quality fundamentals, layout methods and CMM, GD&T, shielded metal arc welding, technical report writing and industrial safety.

cnc machinist machining partsThe education of a CNC machinist technician is the largest factor next to work experience for those completing their education and seeking CNC machinist jobs. Even for those who finish their schooling there is frequently an apprenticeship program that many states require those working a CNC machinist job to have. Requirements can vary state by state and in addition to the above educational courses completed at a university, technical or vocational training institute or a community college, in order to garner a CNC machinist salary one may have to have between 2,000 and 8,000 hours in the field.  Naturally the more experienced CNC machinist will be making the top CNC machinist salary that could range from $40-$68,000 a year.

In most modern systems relying on CNC machinists, the component designs are highly automated and controlled via  a computer program that is designed to interpret exact functions as programmed by the CNC machinist technician.  The CNC machinist will not only be on hand for the operation of the machine to ensure correct operation and exact specifications are made, but it can often entail the use of not only computer operated lathes and mills but frequently involves the use of robotics.

It’s not unusual for many different parts to be transferred from one CNC machine type, say a mill, to another by a robot who may then insert the piece into a saw, move it again to a press, etc.  This is frequently how the highly specified CAD designs can go from raw material to a highly automated and custom made piece that has been through a number of different processes, all overseen by CNC machinists.

new cnc machineWith the CNC machinist operating increasingly advance technological machinery, it is therefore mandatory that as the technology becomes more and more advanced and specialized, so then must the education and background of the individuals responsible for their operation. While a common misconception may be that machines can better replace individuals it is actually the CNC machinist and their experience level that is the only safeguard against the mishandling of these highly complex manufacturing machines.

With typical costs for even basic CNC machines beginning at  a quarter of a million dollars and increasing tenfold from there, it is that much more vital that those responsible for the coordinated effort these machines produce to be ever vigilant on safety, proper maintenance and operation of such complex machinery.

Below is a video showing 73 seconds in the life of a CNC machine operator.


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