Advice for an aspiring CNC programmer/machinist
July 27, 2013 1:57 PM   Subscribe

I will begin a course in CNC programming/operating in 2 months time. I want to be as prepared as possible going into it, make the most of the education while I'm learning and have realistic expectations about employment upon completion. What should I know before I start, focus on during school, and what do you know about jobs available for someone with these skills?

I'm 27 years old, live in Toronto, Canada, and currently work in fine art production as a mounter/laminator, a similar industry to sign making.

I make finished art work for clients, slowly, piece by piece, by hand, and now I want to learn more about automation.

I'll be attending the Institute of Machine Tool Technology, a small technical college, for a 42 week program, rather than a full 4 year college course because I already have a liberal arts undergrad.

I'm ready to go back to school to learn a proper trade, and I want to excel at it.

CNC appeals to me because it's a universal and powerful tool, as well as becoming rapidly less and less expensive, making it available to more and more businesses of all sizes.

I've been watching tutorials on G-code and Solidworks. Anything else should I learn to prepare and get ahead?

What do you know about jobs available for people who know CNC programming or operating? Is there some place I should focus my skills?

posted by breakfast! to Education (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It is easy to write inefficient CNC code. Inefficent CNC code involves a lot of backing out and remaneuvering before carefully making the next cut. At some point you'll see how to improve something and you'll be maneuvering the tool from point A to point C without going through point B, because C is the start of the next cut. When you do that - just make sure that the piece is not going to get scraped or gouged in an unexpected way. B, the point of inefficiency, may be useful in preventing you from wrecking your piece.

Point being, don't just think about making the cuts, think about the miniature world you get to work in.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:06 PM on July 27, 2013

A relative trained as a machinist in tool and die, which now is completely CNC. He has a technical college diploma and has never been out of work for long. He has always worked in traditional manufacturing (ranging from cigarettes to tractors), which means he has experienced many layoffs over the years from production downturns and has also worked a lot of night shifts. As you say, there are lots of exciting new opportunities as the technology is becoming cheaper and more accessible. If you live in a place where those are available, choose those over traditional manufacturing.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:18 PM on July 27, 2013

Best answer: By far, 2D CNC cutting systems for sheet and roll goods remain the largest concentration of CNC equipment types, worldwide, by almost any measure (value of equipment, annual value of goods processed, number of systems/machines, etc.). Such systems use mechanical knives, water jets, abrasive jets, plasma arcs, flames, EDM and other technologies to cut everything from fabric for clothing, furniture and car interiors, to sheet metal, to paper and cardboard, to plywood, to, well, just about anything that can be unrolled or fed into the systems in sheet form. But the actual programming of 2D systems has largely been a solved and highly automated work flow since the early 1980s. Most systems in operation today can take a library of digitized part shapes, and a production schedule parts list file, and produce highly optimized cutting programs that minimize material waste, and even drive labeling, offload stacking and packaging equipment, with little, if any human intervention.

So, "programming" in the strict sense of "create tool path routines for making work parts," as is often still common on low end 3, 5 and 7 axis mills, lathes and machining centers, is not so much a demand skill center of itself in 2D production shops. But people with CNC training are still needed to maintain the equipment, conduct production quality control tests, manage production operations and data libraries, and coordinate with vendors on maintenance and upgrade projects. And frankly, within most geographical areas of the world, there are a lot more 2D type "programmer/production manager" or "2D CNC maintenance technician" or "waterjet systems technician" positions available, than there are 3D CNC programmer jobs.

Also, there is a lot of CNC controlled welding equipment in the world, in every form from 2D continuous seam welders, to 5 axis and higher robotic spot and combination welders. So, if I were you, I wouldn't get too hung up on the machining aspect of your courses, although if your interests are naturally that narrow, fine, and there will be plenty to learn, I'm sure. Particularly if you have no other background in metal work, metallurgy, or automation. What's likely to be most valuable to you over the course of a career in industry, are the general concepts behind CNC, and its application to automated manufacturing processes.
posted by paulsc at 5:36 PM on July 27, 2013

Check out some CNC forums - the types of questions asked and the help provided gives a good idea of what aspects are difficult / time consuming / commonly overlooked / always happening / easily avoided, etc.

My feeling about courses (though I've never done a CNC one) is that there is only enough time in them to scratch the surface, and the people who excel are those that are invested in it in their spare time. So in your situation, I would want access to CNC tools or machine shop during and after the course. Whether that comes with the course, or requires a membership to a local hackerspace/tool/techshop, or obtaining something yourself like a taig or other home-affordable micro CNC mill.
Then, constantly make your own projects (and tools), constantly hone what you learn during the course, and beyond.
posted by anonymisc at 8:28 PM on July 27, 2013

(Also, my suspicion is that the area which will need the bulk of learning time is the machining stuff rather than the code stuff. Building complex shapes is straightforward on a computer. Designing and building a custom tooling and rig to cut it could be quite involved. Knowing enough about tooling and materials and stresses and lash etc to inform the shape as it's being created in computer such that machining goes without a hitch, is valuable, and I imagine a lot of that knowledge is best acquired from experience)
posted by anonymisc at 8:35 PM on July 27, 2013

I trained as a CNC machinist in a similar program to the one you're considering, only on the other side of Canada. I left the industry after only a couple of years, so let me play devil's advocate. Your experience may be wildly different from mine, of course.

I am female, and finding a job was difficult, as a lot of shops feel having women around is disruptive to the camaraderie. So I wound up working in the less safe, less well-ventilated shops. You must be careful about your hearing and vision at all times when working. You can lose your hearing to the sound of the machines and your eye to a stray chip.

I mostly worked on parts for the oil industry, operating a twin chuck lathe. The work was incredibly repetitive - I once made the same part for nearly a year, day in, day out. Also I worked 12-hour shifts, four on, four off. If you are accustomed to having a Monday-Friday 9 to 5 job, this isn't the career for you, because CNC is shift work. It's also very common to work alternating day and night shifts and I wasn't cut out for it.

Learning about machining was fun and interesting - but the actual career was not.
posted by Deodand at 9:06 PM on July 29, 2013

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