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The Difference Between a CNC Operator and a CNC Machinist

May 6, 2020 ·

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If you’ve ever searched for jobs in the manufacturing industry, you’ve probably come across two different job titles: CNC operator and CNC machinist. If you’ve thought to yourself, “What’s the difference between the two?” know that you’re not alone.

CNC operators and machinists have similarities and differences when it comes to their job responsibilities. While both positions deal with CNC machines and equipment, there are key differences to note.

Keep reading to learn about CNC operators, machinists and how these roles differ.

What Are CNC Machines Used For?

Before we jump into the differences between operators and machinists, let’s talk about what CNC machines are used for.

Computer numerical control (CNC) machines utilize a process in which pre-programmed computer software dictates the movement of factory tools and machinery. This process is used to run many different types of machinery, including grinders, lathes, mills and routers. This machinery cuts, drills, grinds and shapes a variety of materials, from metal to plastic.

CNC machines are used to create detailed, intricate parts that serve a wide variety of industries. These include:

  • Aerospace
  • Transportation
  • Defense
  • Firearms
  • Commercial
  • Electronics
  • Medical
  • Optical
  • Oil & gas
  • Marine industry

Understanding the Roles in a CNC Environment

As with many industries, there are a variety of different roles one can take on in a CNC environment. These roles rely on one another and are critical to the industry. In general, there are three basic types of positions:

  • Operator: This position is often taken on by beginners or those just getting started in the industry. In a nutshell, an operator’s job is to load stock material and run parts. They are the so-called ‘button pusher.’
  • Set-up Operator: This person is responsible for loading the program, selecting and setting up tools, testing the program, and ensuring everything works correctly. They also step in and fix things when they break or go wrong.
  • CNC Machinist Programmer: This person is the one who takes a blueprint and figures out how to make the part. This involves picking out tools, determining the speeds and fees, and writing the program. Check out this article to learn more about the role.

At this point, you might be wondering, “What about machinists?” It’s important to know that there are no machinists in the traditional sense of the word in CNC environments.

If you come across a job posting for a CNC machinist, it’s most likely referring to set-up operators. This is because set-up operators are the most self-sufficient and by nature, have to understand both programming and operating in addition to setup.

How These Roles Work Together

So how do operators, set-up operators (or machinists) and programmers work together? Typically, the programmer will give their program to the set-up operator, who loads everything into the machine and sets it up. They will then hand the keys over to the operator, whose job is to make the parts.

In smaller companies, one person may be responsible for all three things, but in larger companies, these are separate positions with little overlap. Programmers rarely, if ever, will be found at a machine, expect for when they are testing their program.

In years past, machinists had complete control over all the variables of their part and process (speeds, feeds, tools and method of approach). However, this is now all controlled by the programmer and the machine. The person who actually interacts with the machine, the operator, is limited to loading someone else’s program, loading and setting the tools, and hitting start.

Now that we’ve defined the different positions that occur in a CNC environment, let’s take a closer look at the role of CNC operators and machinists.

What Is a CNC Operator?

CNC machine operators are responsible for stocking materials and running parts. They ensure specific directions are followed in order to create an end product that meets the required specifications. This is typically an entry-level position and can serve as a starting point for those who want to work their way up in the industry.

To be successful in this role, operators must have the following traits:

  • A keen eye for detail
  • Mechanical aptitude
  • The ability to perform mathematical calculations
  • Basic understanding of computer programming and CAD/CAM software
  • Ability to comply with safety guidelines
  • Strong problem-solving and multi-tasking skills

What Does a CNC Operator Do?

The essential role of a CNC operator is to set up and operate CNC machines and equipment. On any given day, an operator may unload raw materials, prepare a test run to ensure a machine is working properly and inspect and measure finished products to ensure they meet requirements.

Depending on the kind of parts they specialize in, an operator’s day-to-day responsibilities can vary. However, the following operator job description can be applied to a wide variety of industries.

CNC Operator Job Description

  • Load and unload raw materials and equipment
  • Set up and calibrate accessories and equipment
  • Keep detailed records for equipment and procedures
  • Perform necessary maintenance and cleaning on equipment
  • Supervise machines as they run and make adjustments as needed
  • Inspect finished product to ensure it meets required specifications
  • Abide by company safety guidelines

How CNC Operators Differ From CNC Machinists

The role of a CNC machinist is more advanced than that of an operator. Machinists can accurately machine parts to print using a variety of machines and methods. They rely on their skills and expertise, which are often obtained through an accredited trade school or many years of on-the-job experience.

Some of the additional duties of a CNC machinist include:

  • Programming machinery
  • Quality control
  • Troubleshooting and fixing mechanical issues
  • Supervising and managing CNC operators

Many machinists start out as operators and work their way up into this role. The CNC industry is very complex—and it’s important for machinists to have a grasp on basic machine operation before taking on more responsibility.

Successful machinists have the following skills:

  • Ability to read blueprints and part drawings
  • Programming and setup of CNC machines
  • Ability to set up and operate machine tools for drilling, milling and grinding
  • Knowledge of properties of metal and other materials
  • Mathematic skills
  • Knowledge of reading calipers and gauges
  • On-the-job CNC machining experience
  • Leadership and effective management skills

How Do You Become a CNC Machinist?

As machinists often start out as operators, you might be wondering, “How long does it take to advance to a machinist role?” This is dependent on several factors, including one’s job performance, skill level and educational background.

A great way to put yourself on the path to becoming a CNC machinist is by completing a training program, like the 36-week CNC Machining Technology program at NASCAR Technical Institute.

Created in conjunction with Roush Yates, a leading brand in the industry, this program will teach you everything from reading blueprints to the programming, setup and operation of CNC lathes and mills.

Students in this program train with industry-preferred tools and technology from brands like Mastercam, Mitsubishi Materials and Mitee-Bite. They gain the hands-on training and high-tech skills needed to prepare for a career as a CNC machinist in today’s world.1

Completing a formal training program like this can catch the attention of employers and give you a competitive advantage when applying for jobs. It can also increase your chances of advancing quicker in the industry, such as from operator to machinist. Choosing to invest in your education now can be an incredible benefit to your career in the long-run.

Train for a Career in the CNC Industry

UTI’s CNC Machining Technology program starts every six weeks, giving you the opportunity to get going and train for your career sooner. Plus, with UTI’s scholarships and grants and FAFSA resources, earning an education might be more accessible than you think.10

To learn more, visit our CNC program page and request information to get in touch with one of our Admissions Representatives today.

NASCAR Technical Institute Campuses That Offer CNC Training

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1) NASCAR Technical Institute is an educational institution and cannot guarantee employment or salary.

2) For program outcome information and other disclosures, visit

10) Financial aid, scholarships and grants are available to those who qualify. Awards vary due to specific conditions, criteria and state.

Universal Technical Institute of Illinois, Inc. is approved by the Division of Private Business and Vocational Schools of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.


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