Posted by: davidhayden | March 4, 2010

What Every Manager Ought To Know — About How To select a great CNC operator

So what are the qualifications of the ideal CNC operator / machinist?
This has been the subject of many debates. There are a couple of schools of thought.

The Two Choices

At one time, and maybe still today, machine tool salesmen sold CNC machines on the notion that they were so simple to operate a “trained orangutang” could operate them. Consequently, many shops and CNC departments are run is such a way that the machine operator is just a button pusher.

In other shops, management looks at CNC machines as some of the most expensive equipment in the shop and they want only the best machinists running them.

Both schools of thought have their advantages and disadvantages. And, each type of operation has a different set of requirements.

A CNC operator shop that depends exclusively on “operators” rather than machinists, requires more supervision, better programmers, and often specialized setup people. These shops also need to look for different qualifications in their employees. If your goal is to rely on lower cost operators then, don’t hire people that aspire to be programmers, managers, salesmen, etc., unless you plan on moving them up in the company fairly quickly. Instead, find people who are conscientious, want to do a good job, like structure, are more interested in their personal life than their career. These operators must carefully and reliably follow written and/or verbal instructions.

To be successful in this operation, management must also have a strong supporting staff that can provide fast, quality set ups and error-free programs.

Since the operator may not be a strong source of ideas regarding process improvement, you’ll need a very competent and attentive supervisor, programmer or manufacturing engineer to monitor the machines. No shop can survive by doing things the way they did them five years ago. New tools, grades of carbide and work holding methods serve to improve efficiency and reduce machining times.

Some advantages of the CNC operator shop include:

  • Lower labor costs.
  • It’s easier to find new employees.
  • Operators tend to do what they are told and do less second guessing.
  • When properly selected, operators tend to be more content doing long production runs.
  • Lower training costs and shorter learning curves.

Some disadvantages of the CNC operator shop include:

  • Operators typically require more support from indirect labor such as programmers, Manufacturing Engineers, supervision etc.
  • Problem solving usually involves more people and time as the operator waits for the “experts” to solve the problem.
  • Often operators have an “it all pays the same” attitude and have less motivation to improve processes
  • Often operators are less comfortable with change and don’t see the value in trying new methods. They may complain, “I don’t see why we have to keep changing the tool, the old one was working well enough.”
  • As operators become familiar with particular machines and jobs, they tend to accumulate tools, notes and knowledge that do not get shared.
  • The ability of your shop to meet production schedules may suffer if the operator gets sick, takes a vacation or leaves the company.
  • Machine setups are dependent upon the availability of the setup personnel. Machines can sit idle while set up people are attending to other machines.
  • The shop may have greater tooling expenses if it is required to provide all the necessary tools and inspection equipment for the operator.

A CNC machinist shop that uses machinists that are expected to program as well as operate the machine need to look for different qualities in their employees.

Like CNC operators, CNC machinists need to be conscientious, and have a strong desire to do a good job. Additionally, the best machinists love their work. They like the challenge of making intricate shapes out of raw stock. They have an attitude of “anything can be done, I just have to figure out how to do it.”

Some advantages of the CNC machinist shop include:

  • Machinists typically require less support from indirect labor such as programmers, Manufacturing Engineers, supervision, etc.
  • Qualified machinists can be a greater resource upon which to draw for figuring out how to run new jobs or improve processes.
  • Machinists usually have their own tools and inspection equipment which can further reduce expenses.
  • Machinists are often more flexible when asked to try new processes.
  • Machinists are more likely to bring in ideas from outside reading or interests.

Some disadvantages of the CNC machinist shop include:

  • Machinists earn higher wages.
  • Machinists are harder to find and keep.
  • Some machinists resist new ideas if those ideas don’t match their previous experience or skill level.
  • Some people who present themselves as machinists, frankly, are just operators.
  • Some machinists who claim to have “x” years of experience really only have one year of experience repeated “x” times. So, while they have put in the years, they have not had the variety of experience necessary to justify their salary expectations.

So the debate rages on. But when you clarify what kind of shop you want to run, you will have a much better idea of how to select the ideal CNC employee.

For a complete introduction to the fundamentals of CNC programming, take a look at 7 Easy Steps to CNC Programming . . . A Beginner’s Guide or 7 Easy Steps to CNC Programming . . . A Beginner’s Guide, the Ebook


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