Differences Between a CNC Operator, Machinist and Programmer

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published January 3, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Many companies use computer numerically controlled (CNC) systems to create products. The process requires an operator, machinist and programmer to set up a system where machines can turn materials into product components. Learning about the different roles and their responsibilities can help you determine if you want to pursue a career in CNC machining. In this article, we define CNC systems and compare the roles of CNC operators, machinists and programmers.

What is a computer numerically controlled system?

Computer numerically controlled machines are systems pre-programmed to shape and create metals and other components for production. The software can command factory machinery to follow instructions, making the production process computer-controlled but still dictated by human users. It can cut, grind, drill and shape a wide range of materials, from plastic to dense metals.

Many fields rely on CNC production. Some of these industries include:

  • Aerospace

  • Military and defense

  • Electronics

  • Medical and optical

  • Oil and gas

  • Commercial products

  • Maritime and fishing

What is a CNC operator?

A CNC operator is an entry-level professional who loads materials into CNC system machinery and controls its parts. Operators work directly with the machine, feeding it the correct resources when it needs them and adjusting the speed of the program's function when necessary. They're also responsible for determining the path the machine cuts on and cleaning the product and tools. Afterward, they're the first to inspect the final product and check if it meets the parameters.

Read more: Learn About Being a CNC Operator

What is a CNC machinist?

A CNC machinist, also known as a CNC setup operator, is a professional who collaborates with operators to ensure the program and production run smoothly. CNC machinists are responsible for programming the machine's actions and troubleshooting any mechanical issues. Machinists primarily interpret and use the code created and written by CNC programmers, directing the machines to configure products. They're also not directly involved with the materials, taking a supervisory position to aid and direct the CNC operators in their duties.

Related: How To Write a Machining Resume (With Template and Example)

What is a CNC programmer?

A CNC programmer is a professional who develops product blueprints and creates each part using the CNC system. They determine which tools to use and what settings can ensure precision. CNC programmers then write the program in numerical code, both as instructions for the machinery and the machinist who deciphers it. Programmers also make the lists for what materials each blueprint requires and how much the production needs to meet their quota. When necessary for unique projects or intricate instructions, the CNC programmer assists the machinist in setting up the system for operations.

Read more: How To Become a CNC Programmer

CNC operator vs. CNC machinist vs. CNC programmer

There's significant overlap in expectations and duties between these roles, but they differ in many ways as well. Here's a list of four comparison points between the three positions:

1. Responsibilities

Although the three roles collaborate on production and CNC machines, it's helpful to think of their overlapping responsibilities as cyclical. The programmer codes the software and determines which materials the blueprint requires, which the operator retrieves and preps for production. Operators then make sure the station is clean and loads materials so the machinist can begin the system of production. Machinists then continue to read and carry out the code for production for the programmer's approval.

Another way to distinguish the roles is through their supervisory responsibilities. The operator maintains and oversees the machine, while CNC machinists oversee system operations and the operators who load materials and aim the instruments. CNC programmers instruct the mechanists what to do each day, making them the head of the operation.

Related: What Is CNC Programming? A Guide

2. Skills

The primary skill requirement that separates CNC operators from machinists and programmers is the ability to write and read code for the system software. Machinists require a familiarity with the system and how to read and implement code, but programmers require an in-depth knowledge of how to write the code and specify the machine's actions for the needed effects. A machinist also needs a high level of mechanical knowledge to operate and repair the CNC machine tools and parts.

While much of the soft skills required for CNC jobs are similar, like resource and time management, there's a certain level of creative planning and problem-solving required to be successful as a CNC programmer. The blueprints that programmers dissect and prepare code for are often without instruction, so it may require the programmer to develop a solution or method for making the product on their own.

3. Education

A degree isn't a requirement to work in CNC operations, and most hiring managers primarily look for experience in similar fields. Many employers offer on-the-job training to show CNC professionals how their specific machines function.

You may attend a college or university to earn a degree in CNC machining, which might help you advance more quickly in the industry. Earning a degree may help you gain a promotion as well, since most companies expect you to start as an operator and gain the experience required to become a machinist, and then a programmer. There are also certifications you can pursue that might demonstrate your knowledge, skill set and commitment to the field.

Related: 16 Jobs in the Engineering Field That Don't Require a Four-Year Degree

4. Salary

Operator and machinist salaries are often similar, but because of the extra skills and experience required of CNC programmers, they may earn significantly higher salaries. Though there are situations where a company can hire machinists expecting them to do a larger amount of the programming, they typically receive salaries closer to a CNC programmer's wage. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median annual salaries for each position as follows:

  • CNC operator: $44,300 per year

  • CNC machinist: $47,800 per year

  • CNC programmer: $61,010 per year

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