cnc skills

Did you ever hit a tough problem in the shop, one where nobody seemed to know what to do, and all of a sudden someone came forward and saved the day?

Those kind of incidents are what elevate some players over others in the workplace.  They can lead to promotions and raises.  Nothing like saving the bacon because you have some scarce knowledge or skill and there’s nobody left to turn to.  Except for you, and that makes you the hero.  You saved the Boss’s bacon, and he won’t forget that if he’s a good boss.  BTW, shops that have cultivated a broad knowledge base among their staff are often more competitive than those who haven’t.  They can tackle a broader range of jobs, their problem-solving skills are better, and in general, they have a staff of learners who are enthusiastic about the trade.

CNCCookbook ran a CNC Skills Inventory Survey to see exactly which skills are common and which ones are rare among CNC’ers.  The point of this article is to go over those results and use them to help you understand what skills are most commonly available and which are rare, and potentially more in demand.

This is not the usual blah, blah, blah, how to write your resume, boilerplate career site article.  These results are fascinating and Real World.  Whether you’re a CNC’er looking to advance your career in Manufacturing, or an Employer wondering what skills to look for and how hard they’ll be to find, you should check out what we learned.

CNC’ers, use this as a guide for what you should learn next as well as what things most of your peers already know that you may need to jump on quickly, before you fall behind.  CNC Shop Owners and Managers, use this as a guide for which skills are scarce.  Try doing an inventory of your staff and see whether you’ve got all the bases covered you’d like to have.  You can also use it to beef up your interview processes to make sure you’re getting talent that has the skills you need.

What the Skills Inventory Means for CNC’ers and Their Careers

Look at it this way, you want as much as you can get from both ends of the spectrum (common/rare) and save the middle for last.  Consider:

  • You wouldn’t want to be missing some skill that more than say 70% of your peers have, would you?  That makes you less attractive to an employer.
  • You’d love to have as many skills as possible that less than say 1/3 of your peers have.  That gives you rare skills that may give you the nod for hiring, promotions, and raises over other less skilled individuals.

So, as we move through the different skill categories, think about what new skills you should try to learn to make yourself more valuable in the job market.  Also, make sure you cover your skills on your resume, especially the rare ones that nobody should take for granted.  Once you know what you’ve got that others don’t, do job searches based on those special skills to find positions where you’ll have the advantage.

What the Skills Inventory Means for CNC Employers and Managers

If there’s one common theme we hear a lot, it’s that it is hard to hired skilled employees.  There just aren’t enough of CNC’ers out there with the skills you’re looking for.  Use this skills inventory to help construct your job requirements.

  • Are you making sure each applicant has skills you take for granted (i.e. things 70% of applicants should know)?
  • Are you asking for the right skills to separate excellent innovative candidates from the also rans (i.e. look for scarce skills that will matter in your shop)?
  • Are you planning to pay what it takes and search longer for skills you need that turn out to be scarce in the marketplace (i.e. things less than 1/3 of applicants have)?

The CNCCookbook Skills Inventory can help you plan these things.

Basic Skills

Note: As we go through the skills, I will try to liberally add links to our various articles that can help you learn about specific skills.

Basic Skills for CNC

Nothing too exotic here, although a willingness to work flexible hours and trig skills seem to be in a little shorter supply than other basics.  BTW, you can solve a whole ton of Trig problems visually with the Geometry calculators in our G-Wizard software.  I can do Trig and Calculus all day long, but I often find these little calculators are handier and faster than working through the problem from scratch.

Education

education

While a degree from a 4 year college or university is uncommon, a bonified completed Machining Apprenticeship is even harder to find these days.

Machine Experience

cnc machine skills

You know it’s going to be tough to get a job if you’ve never worked on the type of machine they’re hiring for.  OTOH, employers are going to think it perhaps a bit odd at the very least if you’ve never run a Band Saw, VMC, Manual Mill, or Manual Lathe.  Those seem to be basic prerequisites.

If you get a chance to run any of the fancy stuff that less than 1/3 of your peers have run, jump on it.  When those jobs come up, skilled labor will be scarce and you’ll have the edge.

CNC Operator

what does a cnc operator do skills

As a CNC Operator, you’d better be able to setup a job, make parts when given a g-code program, set up work and tool length offsets, deburr, inspect parts, prove a program to make sure it won’t crash and damage machine or tooling, operate multiple machines at once, and set tool wear offsets as needed.

If you want to be that better than average CNC Operator, you will also need to be able to operate an overhead crane safely, deal with drip feeding g-code to a machine, handle tractability of parts, know how to deal with a shop floor tool vending machine, and maybe have some experience with vacuum fixturing.

Metrology

cnc metrology and measuring instrument skills

So you know how to operate a calipers?  As Archie Bunker used to say, “Whoop-tee-do.”  You’d better be good with an Edgefinder too.  After all, you’ll need it to set up Part Zero in many shops.  Micrometers, Gage Blocks, Thread Gages, Height Gages, and Gage Pins are also going to be expected skills.

Now, how often have you precisely located the center of a bore?  Can you use an Optical Comparator?  Have you measured the Hardness of a material?  And BTW, if you get a chance to do a stint with the shop’s CMM, jump all over that as apparently many of your peers have little exposure to those versatile machines.

We’re starting with Metrology to move into skills that will get you out of being a basic CNC Operator and into the realm of the higher paid CNC Machinist.  Check out our Complete Guide to Metrology for more information on the valuable skill groups.

Machining

cnc machining skills

As a CNC Machinist, you work to a thousandth tolerances easily.  You don’t hesitate if asked to square a block.  Feeds and Speeds?  Under control!  Hint: G-Wizard Calculator will do a better job for you than all those old guys who think they know it all, keep a copy in your toolbox on a laptop.  Speed up a job as so many of our customers tell us they do, and you’re a whole new kind of hero.  The kind whose results are measured in dollars and cents.

A little more than half of you can manage tolerances to half a thousandth, but less than a third can work to a tenth when called on.  Likewise, most will manage a blank look when handed a sine plate and told to set up an angle for a job.  Chasing threads on a CNC Lathe (that’s one of those ones the boss will remember you saving the bacon on!)?

Fuhgeddaboutit!

CNC Programming

cnc programming skills

CNC Programming.  Think of it as Digital Tooling.  You can only go so far knowing how to sweep an indicator.  This is CNC, that means “Computer” NC, and unless you’ve got some CNC Programming skills, you haven’t really mastered CNC.

Every boy and his CNC Shop Dog can read G-Code and maybe make minor modifications.  If they ask you to fire up a machine and perform some MDI operations, you’d better be able to snap to it with ease.  (Pssst!  Check out our G-Code Cheat Sheet for a solid MDI learning and doing resource)

Now it gets more interesting.  Suppose they hand you some g-code straight out of a CAM package.  They want you to go through it, change a bunch of tool numbers to different slots, and modify feeds and speeds accordingly.  Could you do it?  69% of your peers say they can.  We wrote a whole article talking about how to do this sort of thing, so check it out.

Here’s another power tool for your kit:

Get our G-Wizard Editor.  It is THE power tool for learning, understanding, improving and general messing around with g-code.  There is no easier tool available.  Let me just show you one of its many very cool features.  I call it G-Code Hints.  Basically, GW Editor will show you the meaning of every line of g-code in plain English.  No more g-code memorization!

Graphical Backplot plus line-by-line g-code hints in plane English…

Hints will not only tell you what the g-code does, they give all kinds of information the other guys around the shop will have to scratch their heads and dig out their calculators to figure out.  What are the coordinates of the arc center?  What’s the radius of the arc?  And on and on.  This software will make you a g-code hero in no time.

Have you ever created a setup sheet?  Are you ready to impress the boss with some ideas for setup sheet innovations?  You might want to check into some of our articles:

Believe it or not, most of your peers (over half), say they can write g-code by hand and that they’ve optimized g-code from CAM to make it faster.  They’ve designed soft jaws and they’ve used Conversational CNC.

Doing all that makes for an impressive bag of tricks.  But if you want the really good stuff, you want to be able to write Fanuc Macros and write code for in-process probing.

Check out our Free GCode Course for help learning some of these skills.

CADCAM

CADCAM skills

Do you want to talk Digital Tooling?  Well, CAD and CAM are the power tools of choice in that arena.  This skills inventory tries to evaluate how many of the most popular packages you know, as well as some basic skills associated with reading drawings and CAD models.  It’s all important.

One thing that surprised me was that over half the respondents are able to use Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing (GD&T).  That’s great!  If you haven’t caught up to that bandwagon yet, it’s fairly critical you pick up the skill.  Try our Free GD&T Tutorial Course, and we’ll make it easy to get started.

As far as the rest of it, you need to know either AutoCAD or Solidworks in the CAD department and preferably at least a bit of both.  They’re just so commonly used it’s hard to do without that skill.  If you had to choose one CAM package, learn Mastercam.  Everything else is a lot less common, and I only put out the most common choices from our recent CAM Survey.

CNC Controls

cnccontrolskills

To operate a machine, you need to know how to run its control.  To program the machine, you need to know its g-code dialect.

I listed the most popular controls from our CNC Controller Survey, and if you know nothing else, you should know Fanuc and Haas.  If you wanted to add a third, looks like Mazak is the place to go.

Other

There are probably a million-and-one other skills to consider.  I drew the list on the questionnaire by analyzing a whole bunch of CNC Job Advertisements to see what employers were actually asking for.  But, here are some other tidbits to consider:

  • Relatively few CNC’ers have worked with Titanium (35%) or Super Alloy like Inconel (32%).  Experience there is no doubt valuable.
  • A lot of CNC’ers have done routine maintenance such as coolant maintenance or topping off way oil.  Surprisingly few know how to maintain the power chucks so common on CNC Lathes–just 24%.
  • Welding skills are handy to have.  54% of CNC’ers can Mig weld, 37% can stick weld, 30% can Tig weld, but only 26% can gas weld.  Considering how versatile gas welding can be, that seems surprising to me.  Of all these processes, I actually preferred gas welding.  It seemed the most “user-friendly” without requiring quite the extreme dexterity and touch of Tig welding.  Every machinist should be a decent welder.

Here are the rest of the “Other” skills ranked:

Other CNC Skills

You want to be able to drive a forklift and be familiar with lock out/tag out procedures.  Beyond that, there are a bunch of rarities that might give you a leg up in the workplace.  If you’re interesting in learning more about Lean Manufacturing, check out our Mini-Course on Lean Manufacturing.  Good stuff there.

Conclusion

A good CNC’er is always learning.  This is such a rich field that you’ll never know everything.

What new skills are you interested in learning today?  Tell us in the comments below!

This article was first published in 2017.  I updated it extensively for this version.

 

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CNC Machine Operator Skills & Machinist Skills [2019 Quick Guide]
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