There are approximately 159,000 computer control programmers and operators working in the United States. Job growth statistics indicate that the industry will experience a slight increase of around 4% over the next decade, which is less growth than average.
Most computer control programmers and operators are employed by a variety of manufacturing industries. Programmers and operates enter the field in a number of ways. Some are hired as trainees and learn on the job. Others enter apprenticeship programs and are trained through a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on experience. Still others attend programs at postsecondary schools where they earn certification or an associate’s degree. Some new hires have previous work experience as machinists or machine setters, operators, or tenders. Job applicants with the greatest amount of experience, variety of experience or knowledge, and formal training will be most likely to find employment.
Manufacturers are increasingly turning to computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines which can translate computer code into operation instructions and implement them. CNC machines require very little monitoring. They fabricate precision parts that precisely match blueprint or manufacturer specifications, recognize worn or failing machine parts, replace those parts, and otherwise manage most steps in the manufacturing process with very little oversight.
CNC machines are capable of operating lathes, printing presses, laser cutters, press brakes, and roll forms. A central computer is the ‘brains’ of CNC machinery. Little human supervision is needed. While more and more new machines are being built as CNC equipped, some existing machines can be retrofitted as well. Metalworking businesses utilize the greatest percentage of CNC machines for the reason that computers can maintain absolute accuracy necessary for small precision parts.
CNC programmers are also called numerical tool and process control programmers. They create software programs to activate CNC machine tools. CNC programmers study CAD drawings, blueprints, or specifications in order to decide the steps needed to produce a part. They must determine the cut or bore location, the speed at which metal will feed into the machine, and how much metal to discard. Once these decisions have been made, the programmer must translate the operations into instructions that can be read using a computer aided/automated manufacturing (CAM) program. These commands are numerical and indicate location of cuts, bores, or bends; the speed at which materials are fed into the machine; and other specific commands. When the program is complete, the programmer reviews the commands to confirm that specifications will be met. A computer simulation prior to a test run saves time and limits potential damage to the machine. Errors found during the simulation are corrected before a trial run is executed. The test run of a newly-created program must be very closely monitored. Vibrations, broken parts, or a product that does not match specifications must be corrected before true production begins. In the event of error, the program must be modified using the control module. Next, the product is compared to blueprints or specs to determine absolute accuracy.
CAD and CAM software is being increasingly developed to interact with CNC machines. This is improving productively astronomically. User interface programs are becoming streamlined so that operators can use icons and buttons to feed information. For this reason, more and more manufacturers are combining CNC programmer and machine operator responsibilities. When the programmer’s work is complete, the machine tool operators prepare the machine by downloading the program, attaching the selected tools, positioning the prototype, and beginning operation.
Since CNC machines can be controlled with little direction from an operator, one person can oversee a number of machines running simultaneously. Well-trained operators organize their shifts to schedule work in such a way that the machines are running constantly.
For the most part, CNC operators work in comfortable conditions. Work areas are generally well lit and ventilated. Because of the number of small parts, counter space and floors must be kept clean and organized. Modern machines built with computer controlled mechanisms are enclosed to protect them from dust. These enclosures also limit workers’ exposure to noise, flying debris, lubricants, and fumes. It is still important for operators to pay attention to standard safety rules. Safety glasses and ear protectors should be worn to shield against airborne bits of sharp metal and excessive noise. Hazardous materials containing chemicals must be handled carefully. Machinists need stamina and strength, as they are on their feet during most of their shifts and must lift or carry heavy tools or materials on occasion. Numerical tool and process control programmers are assigned computers in offices or shop floors. While a 40-hour work week with a regular schedule is standard, at times of peak production, CNC operators may be required to work overtime, weekends, or holidays. Some companies are adding late and night shifts to allow continuous production.
Experienced CNC operators can advance to programmers or machinery mechanics or to supervisor or administration assignments. Highly qualified operators go tool and die making.
The median hourly pay of computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic, is roughly $17 per hour. Trainees and inexperienced employees earn less than $11 per hour, while highly qualified workers earn nearly $25 per hour.