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Ever wondered what a computer numerical control (CNC) machinist does on a typical day?

This complex career requires a diverse skill set, including use of math, ability to interpret drawings and utilize programs, mechanical design, precision and an eye for detail. Essentially, a career in the CNC industry merges hands-on work with cutting-edge technology.

If you’re curious about what a day in the life of a CNC machinist entails, this article is for you. Keep reading to learn what a CNC machinist is, what they do, how to become one, salary and more.

What Is a CNC Machinist?

Before getting into the role of a CNC machinist, it’s important to first understand what a CNC machine is and what it does.

Computer numerical control (CNC) machines are precision tools that shape, cut, turn, grind, drill and mill metals and a variety of other materials, including wood and plastic. They combine mechanics and technology to produce durable pieces as tiny as computer parts and as large as car frames.

A CNC machine is composed of a machine such as a lathe, grinder or mill combined with a computer system operated by a trained machinist. The machinist refers to blueprints or computer files, and uses the computer to set parameters for the machine. From there, the machine takes the digital designs, or code, and uses it as a guide to produce 3D physical products.

When creating a new part, a machinist simply loads a new program or adds a new prompt to an existing program by revising the code. Once the program is verified after going through testing, it can be used in the future whenever the same part needs to be produced. This reduces the likelihood of human error and makes producing large quantities of parts a breeze.

The CNC machining process is incredibly precise. If you’re working on a job that requires you to get within one-tenth of a millimeter in accuracy, CNC machining is the best choice. Some examples of things CNC machines can create include:

  • Computer parts
  • Medical device components
  • Wooden furniture
  • Automobile parts and frames
  • Aviation, aerospace and marine parts
  • Military equipment
  • Guitars
  • Ventilators
  • Body implants, like knee or hip replacements

As you can see, CNC machines make a wide variety of products and support many different industries, from health care to technology to construction. These components are vital to our society, as they power all different types of machinery and help to keep people safe.

CNC Machinist Job Description

So what does a CNC machinist do on a day-to-day basis?

Commonly referred to as “set-up operators,” machinists are responsible for loading the program, selecting and setting up tools, testing the program, and ensuring everything works correctly. They step in and fix things when they break or go wrong, and test completed products to ensure they’re perfect and meet all required specifications.

There are many different fields CNC machinists can work in, including manufacturing, automotive, computer part production, aerospace, dental, tool and die making, motorsports, and medical industries, just to name a few.

Successful CNC machinists possess a certain set of traits. They must have knowledge of mathematics, production, processing and design. They also must be coordinated, detail-oriented and able to think critically; have excellent problem-solving skills; and understand equipment operation and control.

Analytical, mechanical and technical skills are all essential for this career. Physical stamina is also important because of the work environment, which often requires machinists to stand for long periods of time and work with their hands.

According to Craig Hibdon, an instructor at Universal Technical Institute’s (UTI) NASCAR Technical Institute, “Machinists are a little OCD. They like to be in control and like to seek perfection. We live in a world of small tolerances.”

While specific job duties can vary depending on the industry, some basic responsibilities of CNC machinists include:

  • Reading and interpreting blueprints, computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and computer-aided design (CAD) files
  • Calculating dimensions
  • Stocking machines with needed materials
  • Fabricating, modifying and repairing precise mechanical instruments
  • Using machine tools such as grinders, lathes, shapers and milling machines
  • Adjusting machines to control speed, material feed and path of the cut
  • Securing and monitoring cutting tools and other machine materials
  • Testing final products to ensure they meet the requirements and checking for any defects

When it comes to the different roles that exist in a CNC environment, it’s important to note that a machinist is not the same as an operator or a programmer.

CNC operators load stock materials and run parts, and this position is typically taken on by beginners and those who are brand new to the industry. They’re the so-called “button-pushers.”

CNC programmers, on the other hand, are the ones who take a blueprint and figure out how to make the part. This involves picking out tools, determining the speeds and fees, and writing the program. To learn more about the differences, check out this guide.

Some CNC machinists advance to leadership roles where they manage other machinists and processes. Other CNC machinists decide to take the entrepreneurial route and start their own companies. In either case, it’s important for machinists to have strong management and business skills.

How to Become a CNC Machinist

Becoming a CNC machinist requires proper education and training. Typically, you will need a high school diploma or GED. While some employers will hire inexperienced candidates and train them on the job, many prefer those who have prior training from a trade school like UTI.1

UTI’s CNC Machining Technology program, which is offered at the NASCAR Technical Institute campus in Mooresville, North Carolina, is designed to provide the hands-on training and high-tech skills needed to prepare for a career as a CNC machinist.

Created in conjunction with industry leader Roush Yates, this 36-week program will teach you everything from reading blueprints and interpreting geometric dimensioning to the setup and operation of CNC mills and lathes.

While training, students use industry-preferred tools and technologies from companies such as MastercamMitsubishi Materials and Mitee-Bite Products LLC. This gives them hands-on experience as they practice what they learn in class.

Graduates of NASCAR Tech’s program have gone on to accomplish incredible things in their careers, from working in manufacturing to even building racing engines for NASCAR!24

In the CNC industry, the types of certifications you can earn vary. There are voluntary CNC machinist certifications available, such as the National Institute for Metalworking Skills’ Certified CNC Lathe Programming Setup & Operations certification. In addition, formal training from a reputable school can help candidates stand out to employers.

CNC Program Graduate story

Craig Brown is an example of a graduate who used his CNC training to build a career in the manufacturing industry. Find out how he went from NASCAR Tech grad to becoming a CNC machinist for Carolina Precision Manufacturing:

CNC Machinist Salary & Outlook

If you’ve ever considered a career in the CNC industry, you’ve probably wondered about the job outlook and salary of machinists.

CNC machining is here to stay. As workers retire or leave the industry, there will continue to be openings for machinists around the country. Since CNC machining supports so many different industries, job opportunities for trained machinists are vast. To learn more about the different types of careers you may be able to pursue, check out our CNC career guide.

This fast-paced industry is continuously evolving, so the best thing you can do to increase your chances for success are to really immerse yourself in the trade and continue learning.

According to Todd English, vice president of Business Development and Partner Relations for Roush Yates Engines, automation has become a buzzword in the CNC industry. While we are seeing more automation because of technology, machinists are still needed.

This is one of the many reasons it’s so important to stay up to date with the latest technologies. “I think it’s going to become more and more technical in the years to come,” Todd shares.

So, what about salary? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for computer numerically controlled tool operators in the United States was $48,550 in May 2023.34 This means half of CNC machinists earned more and half earned less. Keep in mind that salary depends on several factors, including experience, employer, demand and cost of living in the area.

Overall, CNC machining is a great career choice for those who love working with their hands to create things and have an interest in modern technology. This is a promising career path with exciting opportunities for advancement!

Train to Become a CNC Machinist

The CNC Machining Technology training program at NASCAR Tech begins every six weeks, giving students the opportunity to get going and start training for their career sooner.

To learn more, visit our program page and request information to get in touch with one of our Admissions Representatives. We’re here to support you in achieving your career goals!

In the meantime, feel free to check out these resources:

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