Computer-Control Programmers and Operators

Computer control programmers and operators cut parts and materials using computer numerically controlled (CNC) technology. The following are examples of CNC technology: electrical discharge machines (EDM), laser alterations, and multi-axis spindles. CNC technology is designed to alter solid pieces of glass, plastic, or metal. They frequently work with large amounts of one material, but they may work with smaller quantities of rare materials as well. These professionals combine their expertise in metal composition and CNC technology to make precision cuts.

Before a cut can be made, CNC specialists must make project preparations. To begin, they examine computer blueprints, usually appearing in three-dimensional forms. They then make the necessary measurements and calculations to determine the location of the cut, the rate to feed material into the equipment, and the exact amount of material to cut. Once preparation is complete, they select the appropriate tools to complete the job.

Once tools are in place to complete a project, CNC programmers enter numbers and other instructions into the cutting equipment. After this is done, commands are translated so the computer can interpret them. They usually enter numbers into the computers, the cut to be performed, and the rate of the cut. They are also charged with maintaining equipment and making sure it is working properly. Since the equipment is expensive, and complications could cause irreparable damages, computer generated simulations are frequently used to check equipment for problems. More machines are now linking CAD/CAM technology and CNC equipment, making it possible for computers to more readily translate commands for the cutting equipment.

Once commands are entered and all the preparation work is complete, CNC specialists complete the task. CNC specialists place information on servers via networks or computer disks. Some high tech machines actually ask questions before performing any operations. Before materials are cut, CNC operators place metal into the equipment before it automatically cuts it. Heavy materials are placed in machines with forklifts or other lifting equipment. If complications occur during cutting, CNC operators must make the proper machine adjustments. To make these changes, CNC specialists must be trained in CNC programming.

In order to boost productivity, manufacturers increasing prefer workers who can quickly adapt to new technology and perform a wide range of tasks. As a result, CNC operators often are required to perform many of the basic skills of a machinist and a CNC programmer. However, some manufacturers simply need CNC operators to be ‘button-pushers.' They primarily start and stop machines, load cutting programs, and load and unload parts and tools.

To monitor proper machine operation, CNC operators listen closely for unusual sounds or extreme vibration. They pay close attention to vibrations since vibrations affect cutting operations. If unusual vibration is constant, CNC operators alter the machine's cutting speed. Moreover, CNC operators must ensure materials do not become too hot and are lubricated since excessive amounts of heat are created during the cutting process.

In many cases, an individual CNC specialist will supervise numerous machines since most are automated. Usually, specialists supervise a couple machines making simple cuts while paying strict attention to a machine making complicated cuts. For example, cutting stainless steel can be very complicated. CNC specialists are usually expected to ensure machines they supervise are constantly operating during their shifts.

Work Environment
Computer-control operators and programmers typically work in clean, well ventilated shops. Most of the equipment they use is full encased by high resistance plastics to ensure safety and minimize workers exposure to harmful debris and noise. Notwithstanding, computer-control operators are required to wear protective clothing and equipment as a safety precaution. Being a computer-control operator requires stamina as they are required to stand for long periods of time and may need to life fairly heavy items.

Computer-control programmers and process control programmers work off the shop floor in offices. The use laptops or desktop computers for their work. Occasionally these professionals will work on the shop floor for short amounts of time, but this is rare. When they do they must exercise the same caution and take the same safety precautions and operators.

As most employers want to maximize the productivity of the machinery they run it around the clock. Computer control programmers and operators are increasingly required to work in the evening, on the weekend and take occasional night shifts.

Training and Education
There are various ways to become a computer control programmer or computer control operator. Some enter the field through an aprenticeship or on-the-job training and others by way of a formal education. However, a growing number of computer control programmer and operators are earning a degree or receiving training from a community college or technical school. For computer control programmers seeking opportunities in the fields of aerospace, automotive or shipbuilding, a bachelor's or master's degree in engineering may be required.

In order to set a uniform standard of competency, a number of technical schools and colleges have begun to offer a curriculum for metalworkers that incorporates national skills standards developed by the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). Students who successfully complete this curriculum earn a NIMS credential in metalworking that can help prepare them for a career in CNC operations.

Some computer numerically controlled (CNC) operators (button-pushers) can launch their career with only a few weeks of on-the-job training. However, as more and more CNC machinery and processes are becoming automated, job opportunities for less-skilled workers are shrinking.

On average, computer-control machine tool operators make about $15 per hour. The lowest 10% of computer-control machine tool operators earn less than $10 a hour, while the top 10% of earners make over $24 an hour. Average earnings per sector are as follows:

Industry/sector Hourly Rate
Metalworking machinery manufacturing $18
Machine shops; turned product; screw, nut and bold manufacturing $16
Motor vehicle parts manufacturing $15
Plastics parts and products manufacturing $13
Process control programmers make about $20 per hour on average. The lowest 10% of process control programmers earn less than $14 a hour, while the top 10% of earners make over $30 an hour.

Job Outlook
Even though career opportunities for computer control programmers and operators are predicted to decline slightly, there will be plenty of positions for those with specialized training and education. Many employers continue to express difficulty in finding highly skills computer control programmers and CNC operators. The increasing reliance on advanced CAD/CAM software that automates the part and product design and production process will be responsible for a slight decline in job opportunities in this industry over the next decade.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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