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A CNC Machinist Thinks Differently

What Is a CNC Machinist?

A CNC machinist programs and operates the machines that create, modify, and repair products through material shaping. The mindset of a machinist is very different from a machine operator. A machinist thinks differently; they must determine the path the machine takes, the cut speed, and the feed rate, but even before that they must have the ability to see a project in geometric images. The CNC machinist provides the sketches, blueprints, or computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) files to the machine to complete the operation.

Using the code from the input, the machine then controls the cutting speed to shape materials like wood, plastic, or metal to create the desired product. The choice of CNC machine is also part of design expertise, typically using a mill, router, grinder, or lathe.

CNC machinists work in environments like factories, machine shops, and tool rooms for various industries including racing, aerospace, transportation, defence, commercial, electronics, optical, marine, oil and gas, firearms, medical, technology, and die making.

Some CNC machinists go on to pursue focused careers in metrology, work holding, quality control inspection, programming, mechanical assembly, maintenance, and machine tool building, as well as working as service technicians in the field. Experienced CNC machinists may also pursue careers as managers or business owners.

 

How Do I Think Like a CNC Machinist?

First, a little bad news; there is no simple recipe. You can study in school and understand how CNC machines work and how computer programs speak to them, but some natural talents that are harder to teach. Let’s look at some fundamentals of thinking like a machinist.

Just like learning the history of art doesn’t make you a good artist, there are both creative and mathematical elements involved to be a good machinist. You need to look at a CNC machine operation and always be thinking of a better way. It’s a blend of accuracy, consistency, creativity, and time-saving.

Beginning with manual machining lends much more opportunity to learn machine thinking. Instead of relying on machine presets, you are more physically in contact with the part and manually work through each process.

Work planning is an important skill, as well as being detail-oriented to the point of perfectionism. These are good attributes. On the actual approach to each project start with math and then move into the physical reality.

Do the Math

Some basic geometry is needed to visualize a part and see all the shapes that make it a whole. This is where math and art begin to intersect. You can draw it out if that is helpful. More numbers come next with angles, diameters, and setting the coordinates for the machine with G Codes. This involves trigonometry, but many programs do the math for you, so expertise in this area isn’t necessary, but certainly helpful to grasp the concept of formulating the operations to build the geometric shapes.

 

Bring the Math into the Physical World

If you are a pure mathematician this next step may be more difficult. Once the geometric design is visualized and calculated, a machinist needs to take into account the real life of the part in the physical world. Limitations of the machine, flex of material, movement, and other variations must be translated into machine programming.

You also need to bring accuracy and efficiency into the design considering setup, measurement, and keeping the piece in the machine for as many operations as possible. 

 

Always Thinking

Another mindset of the machinist is thinking beyond the immediate design. This highlights that precision and timesaving. Calculating Part Zero, or X0Y0Z0, for each machine operation is an exercise in efficiency and accuracy that tests the machinist’s capacity for thinking of various applications. Similarly, using workholding and stops are natural ways to increase accuracy and apply ease to multiple designs.

A machinist thinks differently in approaches to daily life as well as work life. Did you have an inclination for Lego and structures as a child? Or do you look at furniture, tools, or appliance design in your home and think of better ways you would approach the design? It’s a fun process for a machinist. Your knowledge of metallurgy, computer skills, ability to adapt, and work with a team are all great building blocks to complement the machinist mindset. Living and thinking in design produce a natural machinist.