Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines are manufacturing equipment that is controlled by a computer. CNC machines require little set-up time and can produce batches of any size, including one item at a time or several thousand at once. There are many types of CNC machines, such as milling machines, lathes and spindles, and CNC machine operators oversee the operation of all CNC equipment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 141,000 CNC machine operators employed in the United States in 2008. Most were employed in the fabricated metal, machinery and plastics products manufacturing industries.
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CNC machine operators set up CNC machinery for production runs. They make sure the machine has the proper computer program and necessary tools installed. They position the materials being used on the machine and turn on the power. CNC machine operators monitor machinery for any problems during the production run. If there is an issue, operators may adjust the program to correct the problem or consult with a programmer who fixes the program. After items have been produced, CNC machine operators ensure that they meet specifications and verify their quality.
Many employers provide on-the-job training for entry-level CNC machine operators. Advanced operators usually require formal training, which may come through an apprenticeship, vocational school or community college program. Those interested in a career as a CNC machine operator should take high school courses in metalworking, blueprint reading, drafting and math. In formal training programs, students receive classroom instruction and training in a machine shop. They learn how to operate various machine tools, and take classes in shop practices, physics, math and safety procedures. CNC machine operators must participate in continuing education training throughout their careers because CNC technology changes on a regular basis. Machine manufacturing companies may offer training or operators may take courses at a technical school.
CNC machine operators work in well-ventilated machine shops. In most cases, CNC machines are enclosed so operators' exposure to debris and noise is limited. They still must follow proper safety protocol and wear protective gear such as safety goggles and earplugs. CNC machine operators may be required to handle dangerous lubricants and coolants for the machinery, so they must exercise caution with those procedures as well. Operators are on their feet for most of the day and are sometimes required to lift heavy items. Most CNC machine operators work standard 40-hour weeks, but overtime is typically required during periods of heavy production. Some CNC machine operators must also work evening and weekend shifts.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for CNC machine operators was £10.40 as of May 2008. The highest 10 per cent of workers were paid more than £15.50 an hour, while the lowest 10 per cent were paid less than £6.80. The middle 50 per cent of CNC machine operators were paid between £8.30 and £12.60 per hour. The highest-paying employer for CNC machine operators was the aerospace product and parts manufacturing industry, which paid a median hourly wage of £12.20.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment for CNC machine operators will increase by 7 per cent between 2008 and 2018, which is about as fast a rate as the average for all occupations. Many manufacturing plants are replacing older machinery with CNC machines, creating a need for more CNC operators. There may be competition in the field, however, because many employers are retraining existing mechanical machinery workers to use the new CNC machines. Candidates who are able to operate multiple CNC machines should enjoy the best prospects.
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