What is a CNC operator? (With roles and skills info)

Updated 15 May 2023

Computer numerical control (CNC) operators remain in demand in the metalworking sector. To turn a metal casting into a valued functional machined item, CNC operators utilise a combination of intellect and hands-on labour. People with a comprehensive skill set, such as a keen attention to detail, mechanical design and the ability to understand technical drawings, may find themselves drawn to this fulfilling vocation. In this article, we answer the question 'What is a CNC operator?', highlight some benefits of choosing this profession and tell you about the skills you require to progress in the role.

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What is a CNC operator?

CNC operators stock supplies and run components. They make sure that workers follow particular instructions to produce a finished product that fits the requirements. It's usually an entry-level job, used as a stepping stone for people looking to advance in the field. As a CNC operator, you're a crucial component of the overall industrial engineering team. All in one, a CNC operator is a builder, welder, mechanic, craftworker and quality assurance professional.

What does a CNC operator do?

A CNC operator programs, sets up and operates a computer numerical control machine to create machined components. A CNC operator's main tasks include maintaining machinery, adhering to safety and quality regulations and keeping precise component records. Other responsibilities include observing all corporate regulations and safety guidelines, setting up the equipment according to the manufacturer's instructions, regularly attending safety and training sessions, adhering to the instructions when using machinery and equipment, conducting inspections of the workspace and machinery, using correct handling practises when loading raw materials and carrying out minor maintenance work for CNC machines to perform well.

Related: Top 9 basic computer skills and why they're useful

What's the difference between a CNC operator and a CNC machinist?

Consider a CNC machinist as an individual who remains a more skilled and sophisticated CNC operator. CNC machinists work with computers to programme machines, solve mechanical problems, read blueprints and product drawings. Many CNC machinists started their careers as CNC operators, which they now manage and train. Operators aim to advance after gaining a thorough understanding of machine operation, learning about metal qualities and gaining years of on-the-job CNC machining knowledge.

How to become a CNC operator?

You're required to meet specific qualifications to get a job as a CNC operator. The qualifications can vary depending on the level of work you're seeking. Steps to become a CNC operator include:

1. Complete your education

Apply for the position of CNC operator by either completing a university course or a training programme. Completing a college course remains invaluable to earn some of the relevant engineering abilities. Relevant courses include a certificate in Performing Engineering Operations (Level 1), Mechanical Engineering Level 2 Certificate and Engineering and Manufacturing Level 1 Certificate.

The prerequisites for admission include for a level 1 programme, 2 or more GCSE's at grades 1-3 (G to D) or equivalent. For a level 2 programme, you require two or more GCSEs at grades 9 to 3 (A* to D) or equivalent. Alternatively, an applicant can undertake an intermediate apprenticeship to qualify as a CNC operator. If you work in the furniture manufacturing business, it's advisable to undertake an advanced apprenticeship as a furniture CNC technician.

2. Acquire relevant training

Many manufacturing and machining organisations provide on-site training with no prior experience necessary, while others demand a certain amount of time working in similar situations prior to enrolling in a training programme. This training's normally paid and included as part of induction training. Basic training lasts anything from a few days to a week and involves observing current operators and doing tasks under supervision.

3. Apply to open positions

Check local job postings and apply for opportunities that you're qualified for depending on your studies, training and expertise once you've completed your formal education, finished your certifications and achieved on-the-job experience. Concentrating on what you offer as the work you're most comfortable with may help you secure an interview call. A cover letter describing your qualifications for the career and organisation you're applying to long remains a fantastic idea.

Sample CNC operator job description

Below is an example of an ad you may find for this job:

We are looking for experienced CNC operators to help boost productivity. The chosen applicant operates a wide range of CNC machines, conduct quality checks, monitor and document hourly machine output data and generate thorough reports for higher management. A high school education or equivalent remains essential, as is 2+ years of experience in the industry and individuals with industry-related certificates highly encouraged to apply.

Other responsibilities include performing drilling and grinding operations by operating, cleaning and inspecting CNC equipment, lathing and milling, the ability to read and comprehend blueprints, mechanical drawings and other technical information, using programming languages to convert instructions into commands that allow machines to do the desired task, following all safety procedures and recommendations, inspecting completed items, measuring them and comparing them to the job's tolerances and taking part in regular training and safety workshops.

Related: How much does a computer programmer make on average?

What skills does a CNC operator utilise?

It's important for those interested in a job as a CNC operator to hold an advanced understanding of technology and a willingness to work with equipment that requires an accurate operation. A basic grasp of computers and the ability to interpret blueprints also prove highly beneficial. Other skills of importance to a CNC operator include:

Software and mathematical skills

CNC operators keep up to date with the newest tools and software since they utilise Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) software regularly. They also use mathematical skills to measure specifications, define software parameters and check quality control. It's also important for CNC operators to remain proficient in coding and hardware languages. They're required to understand and follow technical instructions and requirements and choose the best setup for producing the desired product. It's common for a CNC operator to understand designs that include manufacturing tolerances. These abilities require a strong mathematical basis and knowledge of CAD or CAM technologies.

Analytical skills

A CNC machine operator's problem-solving abilities remain highly valuable. These individuals assess the quality of the items their machine produces and make any necessary adjustments to the equipment or programming to improve quality. CNC operators typically confront design drawings, quality concerns and challenges with equipment and other materials, all of which require analytical skills and the patience to resolve them.

Engineering and analytical skills

To read and interpret part drawings, plans, layouts and other technical requirements relating to their trade, CNC operators require analytical abilities. Since operators gain a strong working grasp of how the machinery performs, mechanical engineering skills are also highly desirable. It's also important for them as they're required to calibrate and clean the machines.

Alternative career choices for CNC operators

A toolmaker creates tools for manufacturing that require the manipulation of plastic or metal pieces, such as carving or shaping, using computer-aided design systems. Toolmakers also test their creations, making modifications as necessary to ensure that the pieces created satisfy the plan specifications. Toolmakers also set up, operate and dismantle automated and CNC machine tools. Apprenticeships, university programmes and on-the-job training remain the most appropriate options to develop in this field. A millwright disassembles and reassembles sophisticated industrial machinery. Millwrights also perform routine maintenance on this equipment, such as repairing or lubricating worn parts.

Related: 10 essential mechanical engineer skills

Long-term career progression as a CNC operator

The metal sector requires more trained CNC operators in a climate where machines are growing increasingly important in manufacturing. One of the most tempting features of being a CNC machinist includes the range of job opportunities available to you. Long-term career progression as a CNC operator includes:

  • Long-term operator: Most entry-level CNC machinists begin their careers as machine operators, learning new skills and building experience.

  • Set-up machinist: After working as a machine operator, many machinists assemble CNC machines. Understanding geometric dimensioning and making adjustments to the CNC machine's controller make up part of this role.

  • CNC programmer: Your job as a CNC programmer includes writing the code that instructs CNC systems on how to build the part you require. Programming, component design and performance optimization form part of this process. You may become responsible for inspecting your parts as well.

  • Manager: As you gain experience, you may have opportunities to lead and supervise others. Managers train employees on how to operate equipment properly, enforce safety standards, allocate assignments and supervise their work. They also decipher blueprints and devise strategies for completing a job while updating machinery, ordering components and maintaining accurate service records.

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