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What is a CNC Operator? What's the Job Like

What is a CNC Operator? What's the Job Like

What is a CNC Operator? What's the Job Like

Machine tools based on CNC are the key to the line of production for any manufacturing industry.

Despite all the automation in modern manufacturing plants, CNC machines require well-skilled operators for their optimized performance.

The operator's role demands hands-on work and brains to manufacture a usable product from raw materials.

A CNC operator is an entry-level job that demands basic knowledge of running CNC machines. Apart from running and maintaining the machines, the operators keep records of the blueprints. An operator must know basic mathematics and measuring gauges to perform the preliminary inspection of the developed products.

This article describes the various aspects of a CNC operator job, including job role, desired qualifications, and expected salary.

In the end, the article also provides a roadmap to becoming a CNC operator and differentiates a CNC operator from a CNC machinist.

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What is a CNC Operator?

CNC operator operating a CNC machine
CNC operator operating a CNC machine

A CNC operator is an employee whose primary responsibility is the day-to-day running of a CNC machine.

They are often assigned several other tasks such as; editing the CNC programs, maintenance, and quality control.

As the CNC operator is an entry-level position, the recruits are usually trained with the requisite skills post-joining.

However, preliminary knowledge and understanding of the job scope as given below are always useful for an aspiring applicant.

RolesDetails
Preparing the CNC machine for production.Turning the machine on.
Examining the specifications of the raw materials.
Placing the raw material in the machine for further processing.
Machine supervision during the production process.Monitoring the machine via the control system.
Taking crucial decisions like when to operate the machine in automatic mode or manual mode.
Carry out a detailed analysis in case of the machine encounter problem during the production process.
Perform quality checks of the final products.Use handheld gauges like micrometers, and calipers, for examining the dimensions of the final product.
Compare the product dimensions with the given drawing.
Interpret the blueprints.
Machine maintenance.Machine Cleaning.
Lubricating the machines.
Machine fault analysis.
Roles of a CNC operator

A CNC machining shop usually consists of three main positions; CNC machinist, CNC programmer, and CNC operator.

The machinist and the programmer belong to the higher ranks in the hierarchy and are responsible for finalizing the desired machining parameters and the toolpath.

Subsequently, the machinist directs the CNC operators about the particulars of the machining process along with the necessary quality and safety guidelines.

The CNC operator conducts the machining process according to the guidelines to manufacture the final product.

Roles and Responsibilities of a CNC Operator

Checklist

The roles and responsibilities of a CNC operator include, but are not limited to;

  • Outline the part drawings into measurements for manufacturing.
  • Liable for operating controls, loading parts, specifying offsets, and assessing quality parts for conformance to essentials.
  • Analyzes drawings to realize the specified tolerances and dimensions of the finished product and subsequently decide the operation sequence and setup conditions.
  • Conduct appropriate calibration techniques for all machining tools and accessories.
  • Investigate the reason behind the malfunction of a machine tool or out-of-tolerance machining, and troubleshoot the problem.
  • Maintains the machine tool by following suitable measures.
  • Record data regarding progress, irregularities, and preventive measures taken for maintaining continuity among different work shifts.
  • Adhere to the required safety practices and regulations.
  • Document and convey logistics matters that appear in creating a part.
  • Participate in relevant training sessions for upgrading skills.

The role of a CNC operator has evolved significantly owing to new production models like just-in-time and demand-driven manufacturing.

To excel in this position, you must significantly understand the latest machine tools and practices emerging in the industry.

The primary role of an operator is to ensure continuous operation of the machines to produce quality parts adhering to the desired standards.

Apart from operating the machine, the role also demands decision-making skills to maintain production continuity.

For instance, in case of any anomaly, the operator must troubleshoot the problem within his capabilities or must analyze the reason behind the same and report it to the concerned authority.

The CNC operator is also responsible for performing quality verification checks of the products to comply with the client's expectations.

The technical drawing is the most significant mode of communication in a machine shop. An operator must interpret the drawings and extract data from them when required.

Overall, the role of an operator comprises excitement and challenges and demands a positive attitude along with the willingness to learn more.

Is CNC Operator a Good Career?

Is CNC operator a good career?
Is CNC operator a good career?

CNC operator is a great career opportunity for those with good attention to detail, interests, and knowledge of advanced CNC machinery.

The US CNC market as of 2022 has already risen above $18 billion as compared to $15 billion back in the year 2018.

Moreover, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the expected job outlook for the role is 27% from 2020-2030, which is more rapid than the average job growth of the nation.

The transition of the manufacturing industries towards CNC-based machinery from manual ones is mainly responsible for increased market values and opportunities in this field.

Although several U.S. companies have shifted their production overseas, the job role of a CNC operator shall be in good demand.

Salary Expectation

Top paying industriesVacanciesAverage hourly salary($)Average annual salary ($)
Companies manufacturing mining products.4028.8960,080
Companies manufacturing audio and visual equipment.5027.3956,960
Automobile manufacturing companies.51027.0956,340
Companies manufacturing household appliances.30026.6955,520
Top paying industries for CNC Operators (Source: BLS 2021)

The average annual salary of a CNC operator, according to BLS, is approximately $46,240.

However, the actual salary depends upon various factors such as the experience of the operator, the type of industry, the location of the employer, etc.

Advanced manufacturing firms pay higher salaries and also introduce you to the latest CNC tools like additive manufacturing, laser cutting, and electron beam machining.

The average salary in such advanced manufacturing firms can be as high as $60,000, making CNC operators an excellent role to attain financial stability.

Scope of Employment for a CNC Operator

Industries with the highest employabilityVacanciesAverage hourly salary($)Average annual salary ($)
Screw, nuts, and bolt manufacturing companies.35,70021.8045,350
Heavy machinery manufacturing companies.14,81023.8449,580
Companies fabricating metal products.14,38022.0745,900
Metalworking12,44023.3548,560
Companies manufacturing aerospace products.11,77026.2654,620
Industries with the highest employment rate for CNC operators (Source: BLS 2021)

A CNC operator's job is usually flexible, and you can work at big manufacturing firms or small production plants.

The role comes with diverse functions, so many employment opportunities exist in the industries.

The most common place for getting recruited as a CNC machine operator is at engineering companies dedicated to manufacturing products on a large scale.

Usually, such companies have multiple production hubs across the country and have large employment opportunities.

The most attractive characteristic of joining as a CNC operator is the diverse career pathways it can take you on.

Growth of a CNC Operator

Growth in a CNC industry
Growth in a CNC industry

Most entry-level CNC operators end up being CNC machinists by acquiring the desired skills and an experience of 5 to 6 years.

An individual working as a CNC machinist is accountable for analyzing the requirements and planning the manufacturing process based on the requirements.

CNC machinist is a mid-senior level role, and are responsible for training the CNC operators for their job functions.

With adequate knowledge and experience, many operators also get promoted to set-up machinists.

Set-up machinists are usually responsible for setting up the CNC machine. They possess advanced skills in CNC machine controller and geometric dimensioning and tolerancing (GD&T).

The salary range of CNC machinists can go up to $54,910 annually.

After accumulating years of experience and relevant training in CNC software, a CNC machinist can be promoted to a CNC machinist programmer.

As a CNC programmer, you will be responsible for programming a CNC machine and defining the tool paths to the CNC system required to manufacture the desired part.

Although CNC programming can be difficult to learn, the basic programming skills are relatively easy to develop and you can master the skill with time.

The top 80% of CNC programmers are reported to earn an annual salary of about  $75,780.

How to Become a CNC Operator?

How to become a CNC operator
How to become a CNC operator

Getting a job as a CNC operator may involve particular requirements depending on the level or post you’re applying for.

Educational Qualifications Required to Become a CNC Operator

Unlike the U.K., the USA has no requirement for apprenticeships to graduate a trainee as a full-time CNC operator.

However, the CNC trainees must work as assistants for several years to be promoted to full-time CNC operators.

There are typically two established routes for learning CNC operations;

Academic Route

Diploma

To become entry-level CNC operators, you can have a high school diploma degree or equivalent with some relevant experience.

For any prospective candidate interested in beginning a career in this field, it is recommended to excel in STEM subjects.

Math, computer programming, metalworking, and machine tooling coursework can be advantageous for this particular role.

Undergoing technical courses in CAD/CAM, engineering drawing, and blueprint reading offered by community colleges or trade schools are also desirable for a long-term career in this field.

NIMS certification, though not essential, can help demonstrate the level of expertise you possess.

Practical Route

If you cannot manage the cost associated with academics, look for a job where you can work as an assistant for CNC operations.

After gaining relevant experience under a trained expert, you can apply for the CNC operator roles.

However, to move your career further, secondary education will be necessary.

Training Required to Become a CNC Operator

Certifications

In the US, you might not require more than on-the-job training for the post of CNC operator.

However, most employers prefer candidates to have a high school diploma.

Many short training programs are available that can be beneficial for candidates without a degree to increase their chances of recruitment.

The training program offers practical and theoretical courses like CNC programming, CAD/CAM, analyzing industrial blueprints, GD&T, tool making, and many more.

Experience Required to Become a CNC Operator

To get recruited as a CNC operator, sometimes employers may insist on completing an apprentice program.

Apprentice programs such as "earn and learn" aim to pair students with local businesses, and on proving the desired skill set, the student is provided with the apprenticeship status.

Often certification courses are also treated as equivalent to experience by many employers.

You can also undergo the certification program by The National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS), which is well-recognized in the industry.

The program assesses a candidate's skills from entry-level to proficient level against national standards.

Fundamentals of Metal Fabrication certification is also available for entry-level operators.

The certification focuses on basic concepts relevant to metal fabrication and is provided by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA).

Skills Required to Become a CNC Operator

Design and Measurements
Design and Measurements

CNC operators need a span of skills to thrive in the manufacturing industry.

Technical aptitude and problem solving

Operators can often encounter unexpected troubles while operating the machine. Technical aptitude allows them to find the root cause of the problem.

A problem-solving attitude can help them troubleshoot the problem for the smooth running of the production process.

Math and software skills

Math skills help interpret technical drawing, measurement, and inspection purposes, suggesting new dimensions based on the machine's limitations.

Software skills are useful for controlling the user interface in the machine and editing the part program if necessary.

Attention to details

CNC operators must have an eye for detail to capture small errors during the process to avoid any adverse effect on the production process.

Communication

Communication is a significant skill in conveying problems or asking peers questions regarding the equipment or the process.

Analytical skills

Analytical skills allow operators to interpret engineering drawings and specifications related to the part.

CNC Operator vs CNC Machinist

CNC OperatorCNC Machinist
QualificationExperience as an assistant or diploma degreeEngineering graduate or  High school diploma
ExperienceEntry-level role with apprenticeship or certifications.4-5 years experience as a CNC operator
Avg. Salary~$46,000~$50,000
DutiesExecute and monitor the process as advised by the machinist.Finalize the process planning, optimize the parameters, and train the operator,
CNC Operator vs CNC Machinist

The main difference between a CNC machinist and a CNC operator is their level of seniority in the CNC industry.

While a CNC operator is an entry-level role, a CNC machinist is a mid-senior level role that requires around 4-5 years of experience as a CNC operator.

The CNC machinist finalizes the machining process and optimizes the machining parameters based on several iterations.

Whereas, the CNC operator executes, monitors, and inspects the machining process based on the guidelines obtained from the machinist.

Apart from that, a CNC machinist makes around $50,000 per year, while CNC operator has an average annual salary of $46,000.

Final Thoughts

 A CNC operator is a trained technician to operate CNC machines.

It is an entry-level role where the individual is responsible for the execution and monitoring of a machining operation along with the maintenance of the machine tools.

Employers usually prefer a diploma candidate for the position; however, individuals with sufficient experience as an assistant and suitable certifications are also eligible for the post.

Several opportunities exist across various metalworking industries for CNC operators with the desired skill set and experience.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What are the states that have the highest employment opportunities for CNC operators?

According to the BLS report 2021, the highest employment opportunities exist in Wisconsin, followed by California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

For how many hours does a CNC operator work in a week?

The typical working hour of a CNC operator is 40 hours per week.

What is meant by the Precision Sheet Metal Operator (PSMO)?

PSMO is a three-year valid certification from the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International. This advanced-level certification program assesses a candidate based on his proficiency in sheet metal operations like; sawing, shearing, finishing, laser cutting, etc.

About John Abraham

Hey I'm John. I write about Manufacturing, Metalworking, CNCs and Lasers at Mellowpine. If you have any questions related to CNCs or Lasers, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at mail@mellowpine.com

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John Abraham

Hey I'm John. I write about Manufacturing, Metalworking, CNCs and Lasers at Mellowpine. If you have any questions related to CNCs or Lasers, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at mail@mellowpine.com

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