Is CNC Programming Hard to Learn? (Yes/No?)

Is CNC Programming Hard to Learn? (Yes/No?)

Is CNC Programming Hard to Learn? (Yes/No?)

CNC programming is one of the hottest skills today in manufacturing.

Is CNC programming hard to learn? What are the basic requirements? And what are the challenges that you can face when programming a CNC?

This article answers all these questions comprehensively.

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Is CNC Programming Easy or Hard?

Programming a CNC machine
Programming a CNC machine

The difficulty level of CNC programming depends upon your experience, the machining process, and the part to be machined. Programming an entry-level CNC for basic machining operations can be learned within a few weeks, whereas programming a multi-axis CNC for producing complex parts requires years of experience and training.

Therefore, getting started with CNC programming can be easy, but enhancing your skills to become an expert programmer requires years of hard work, making it comparatively challenging to achieve.

But the question arises, Is CNC programming a good career?

The simple answer is "Yes". CNC manufacturing is being widely implemented in almost every industrial sector, which leads to an increased demand for quality CNC programmers, making it an excellent choice of career.

However, being a successful CNC programmer requires you to develop a set of skills that are essential for handling the responsibilities of a CNC workshop.

Basic Requirements to be a CNC Programmer

Apart from experience and training, there are various basic requirements that you need to fulfill to become a CNC programmer.

Educational Qualifications

Diploma

CNC programming is a high-level responsibility in a CNC workshop that requires a highly-skilled individual capable of programming and executing a machining process.

The educational qualifications required for being a CNC programmer vary from one organization to another.

While some organizations hire based on experience and skills, others require an engineering graduate with advanced CAD/CAM skills.

Generally, a high school diploma is the primary educational requirement for the role of a CNC programmer.

However, an engineering graduate with appropriate on-field experience has the edge over other candidates because of his familiarity with CAD/CAM software and ability to interpret designs.

Experience

Growth in a CNC industry
Growth in a CNC industry

The greatest misconception about CNC programming is that a CNC programmer works on a computer with no shopfloor involvement.

In reality, a CNC programmer is responsible for programming a CNC, setting up the machine for the initial run, observing the output for the first few runs, and, if needed, modifying the program accordingly.

The programmer must be familiar with the working of different CNC machines, cutting tools used for different machining operations, and optimal parameters for a process.

As a result, it is important to ensure that a CNC programmer is a responsible individual with a good understanding of CNC machines and related processes.

Therefore, most CNC workshops prefer to train capable CNC machinists from their organization and promote them to the role of CNC programmer.

CNC programmer is a high-level role in a CNC workshop that requires an individual with around 5-6 years of experience as a CNC machinist.

This on-shop experience helps the programmer understand the different machining operations and troubleshoot the issues, ensuring high-quality output.

However, an engineering graduate with a few years of shop floor experience and good CAD/CAM skills can also be considered for the role of CNC machinist.

In short, a high school diploma holder must gradually work his way up and learn new skills to become a CNC programmer.

Whereas an engineering graduate with appropriate skills requires a few years of shop floor experience to become a CNC programmer.

Skill Set

A CNC programmer is responsible for interpreting the design requirements, preparing the machining setup, executing initial runs, etc.

All these responsibilities significantly differ from each other and therefore require different skills to execute them properly.

Math Skills

CNC programming requires extensive math skills for various activities like interpreting the design, setting the coordinates during manual programming, etc.

Apart from that, good math skills help the programmer to read the blueprint, understand the tolerance requirements, and prepare a part with accurate dimensions.

Math skills also include knowledge about different geometric shapes and contours used in designing a CNC machining operation.

CAD/CAM Skills

MeshCAM software interface
MeshCAM software interface

CAD/CAM skills are one of the most crucial skills that a programmer must have,

Modern programming techniques utilize CAM software that takes the design file from CAD software and automatically converts it into corresponding G-codes and tool paths.

This increases productivity and reduces the scope of human error in the code.

Therefore, a CNC programmer must have excellent CAD/CAM skills to enhance machining productivity and produce high-quality products.

Measurement and Instrumentation

Using Vernier caliper for measurement
Using Vernier caliper for measurement

Measurement and instrumentation skills help a CNC programmer verify whether the produced parts comply with the required specifications.

The programmer uses different measuring devices to check the product and decide whether the part produced is as per the specifications or not.

In case of any defect, the programmer measures the deviation of the actual value from the required value and modifies the program accordingly to ensure perfect results.

Documentation 

CNC programmer is responsible for preparing detailed documentation of the machining process to facilitate easy understanding for the CNC machinist and CNC operators.

Apart from that, in some organizations, a CNC programmer is also responsible for documenting his work, making it feasible for future programmers to understand the workflow of various machining processes in the organization.

Safety and Solutions

Safety sign

CNC machines are powerful tools with various scopes for errors that can lead to fatal accidents on the shop floor.

Therefore, it is important to ensure that all the safety protocols are followed during programming a CNC machine.

Furthermore, a CNC programmer must have excellent problem-solving skills to quickly overcome any issues faced during production.

Types of CNC Programming

CNC machines can be programmed by three techniques, and a CNC programmer can choose his field of expertise.

However, a CNC programmer needs to have basic knowledge of all three types of CNC programming.

Manual
Programming
CAM
Programming
Conversational
Programming
Programming SpeedSlow for complex processesComparatively Faster for complex designsFaster than manual for simple programs
ApplicationSimple programs and debuggingProgramming of all sorts of designs (simple to complex)Simple programming by using pre-sets
Required KnowledgeExtensive knowledge of G-codesExcellent CAM skills and basic G-codesBasic G-codes for tweaks

Difference between manual, CAM, and conversational programming

Manual Programming

SVG to G-code
Manual G-code programming

Manual programming is one of the most challenging types of CNC programming in which the programmer interprets the blueprints and prepares a program from scratch.

This type of programming requires a thorough knowledge of G-codes and other types of codes, such as N-codes, M-codes, etc., used in writing a G-code program.

Generally, this type of programming is used for machining simple geometries, thereby saving the time of preparing a CAD design and converting it into G-codes.

In this programming technique, the programmer generally interprets a 2D design and uses a G-code editor software to write the corresponding G-codes for executing the machining operation.

However, writing the code for complex geometries can be challenging and lead to various human errors.

As a result, manual CNC programming is not usually preferred for complex machining operations such as 6-axis machining or multi-spindle lathes.

CAM CNC Programming

EstlCAM CAM software
Using EstlCAM software to program a CNC machine

CAM CNC programming is the most commonly used programming technique in which CAM software is used to convert the design file into corresponding G-codes automatically.

This type of programming requires a programmer with expertise in CNC software for CAD and CAM operations.

Unlike manual programming, which requires a 2D design, CAM CNC programming requires a 3D design with high dimensional accuracy.

This design file is then imported into CAM software which automatically generates the corresponding G-codes for the process.

However, the programmer is responsible for verifying the process and setting the optimal parameters for the operation.

Although CAM programming involves the automatic generation of G-codes, the programmer must have basic G-code knowledge to modify the program when needed.

Conversational Programming

Conversational CNC Programming
Conversational CNC Programming

Conversational programming eliminates the need for a computer system to program a CNC machine and can be used to set the machining instructions right from the control unit of the machine.

In this type of programming, the programmer selects preset machining operations and inputs the desired parameters for the operation, making it one of the quickest programming techniques.

However, conversational programming is not recommended for machining operations that involve complex toolpaths.

A modified form of conversational programming includes exporting the preset into G-codes and modifying those codes to perform the desired operation.

This provides extra control over the process but requires good knowledge of G-code programming.

Common Challenges in CNC Programming

Although basic CNC programming can be fairly easy to learn, programming complex parts can be tricky.

Learning G-code Language

G-code programming for lathe operation
G-code for simple lathe operation

G-code language is the most commonly used programming language for CNC machines, and a programmer must be well versed with all the codes required for the basic operation of CNC machines.

Hundreds of G-codes, M-codes, N-codes, S-codes, etc., are used for programming a CNC machine, and remembering the functionality of each one of them can be difficult without thorough practical experience.

Understanding Design and Measurements

Design and Measurements
Design and Measurements

Design is the fundamental element of CNC programming, and a good CNC programmer must have the appropriate skills to read and interpret the design.

The complexity of design increases with the complexity of the part, making it difficult to read the design and produce the appropriate toolpaths for the process.

Furthermore, a CNC programmer must be well versed in different unit systems (metric and imperial) and be able to convert the measurements from one system to another.

Understanding the Axis System

5 Axis CNC Machine
5 Axis CNC Machine

Generally, entry-level CNC machines consist of a 2 or 3-axis system with an optional rotary attachment as the 4th axis.

CNC machines used in industrial applications can consist of 5-axis, 6-axis, or even higher-axis systems.

These multi-axis CNC machines are powerful tools that can perform various machining operations in a single go.

However, with the increase in the number of axes of a CNC machine, the complexity of programming also increases.

Learning Different Software

DeskProto software interface
DeskProto CAM software

The use of a computer simplifies a programmer's job by automatically generating the G-codes and toolpaths required for the process.

However, programming a CNC requires various types of software such as CAD, CAM, control, simulation, etc., and an expert CNC programmer must be familiar with the use of all these software programs.

Apart from that, different organizations use different variants of these software programs, further increasing the complexity of learning CNC programming.

Understanding Different Machining Processes

A CNC programmer must be familiar with different machining processes and the variables involved in each process.

This helps the programmer to understand the requirements and set the optimal machining parameters for each process.

Some of the most commonly used machining processes in CNC workshops involve turning, milling, drilling, face milling, laser cutting, plasma cutting, etc.

Understanding the Behaviour of Different Materials

Different materials produce different results when machined under similar conditions.

As a result, every material has its specific configuration of different machining parameters like speed, feed, depth of cut, chip load, etc.

Apart from that, the type of cutting tool used for machining also varies from one material to another.

Generally, during milling operation, ductile materials require a cutting tool with fewer flutes and a higher helix angle, whereas tough materials require more flutes for a smooth surface finish.

A CNC programmer must be aware of the behavior of different materials used in the machining operation and set up the machine accordingly.

Overcoming Practical Hindrances

Tool Runout
Tool Runout

When working on a CNC machine, various issues can arise during the execution of the process.

Simulation software helps verify the process before actual execution.

However, the actual setup can consist of various defects and issues such as tool runout, workpiece offset, blunt cutting tool, etc.

Therefore, it is the programmer's responsibility to understand the setup's limitations and tweak the program to produce the best results, despite the defects and issues.

How to Learn CNC Programming? Roadmap

Learning to program a CNC machine requires multiple skills ranging from shopfloor to computer programming.

Becoming a successful CNC programmer requires around 4-5 years of experience as a CNC machinist.

These years of experience as a CNC machinist will help you develop an understanding of different CNC machines, their operation, and the variables involved in each machining process.

Generally, most organizations provide training programs to help you develop new skills and advance to the role of CNC programming.

Another way of learning CNC programming involves academic achievement with a certification course in CNC programming.

Although it might be a comparatively faster method to become a CNC programmer, it lacks hands-on experience and focuses mostly on the theoretical aspect of programming.

Therefore, it is ideal to attain shop floor experience and then undergo training programs or opt for a certification course in CNC programming.

There are various institutions that provide online courses for CNC programming and can help you gain the required skills to become a successful CNC programmer.

Final Thoughts

CNC programming can be fairly easy to learn, but mastering the job can take years of experience and extensive training.

Apart from that, the difficulty in learning CNC programming also depends upon the type of programming you opt for.

While manual programming can be challenging for machining complex products, CAM programming simplifies the process but requires knowledge about different CNC software.

Furthermore, CNC programming can throw up various challenges during the execution, and a CNC programmer must be wary of different possibilities of defects and errors in a CNC setup.

These challenges can be overcome by gaining experience as a CNC machinist and understanding the working, operation, and troubleshooting of different CNC machines.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is CNC programming a good career?

Yes, CNC programming is an excellent career for individuals interested in machines and computers. It is a dynamic role that involves experience on the shop floor as well as in an office environment. Apart from that, there are various opportunities for growth in the field with the increase in your skills and capabilities.

How much does a CNC programmer earn?

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a CNC tool programmer earns an average annual salary of around $62,000. However, the actual salary depends upon your skills and varies from one organization to another.

What are the different roles in a CNC workshop?

The CNC workshop consists of three major roles: CNC operator, CNC machinist, and CNC programmer. A CNC operator is an entry-level role, whereas a CNC machinist is an experienced individual who manages a team of operators. Finally, CNC programming is a high-level role that requires years of experience as a CNC machinist.

About John

Hey I'm John. I talk about CNCs and Power Tools at Mellowpine. I'm a CNC hobbyist who has been making CNCs and writing about CNCs for a while. I currently also work as a consultant for business owners and hobbyists setting up their own CNCs. If you have any questions related to CNC, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at john@mellowpine.com

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John

Hey I'm John. I talk about CNCs and Power Tools at Mellowpine. I'm a CNC hobbyist who has been making CNCs and writing about CNCs for a while. I currently also work as a consultant for business owners and hobbyists setting up their own CNCs. If you have any questions related to CNC, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at john@mellowpine.com

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