CNC Lathe Operator: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

Lathe operators use computer-controlled machines to fabricate parts from metal and plastic. Training is available through certificate programs in machine tool technology, associate's degree programs in CNC machine programming, apprenticeships, or on the job.

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Job Description for CNC Lathe Operators

The occupation entails monitoring and operating CNC (computer numerically controlled) lathe machines to cut metal and plastic parts for the manufacturing industry. After a CNC programmer develops instructions for a computer controller based on blueprints, a set-up CNC operator downloads the program and performs test operations to ensure the product is made to specifications. A CNC lathe operator then takes over production, running the machine and monitoring it for problems.

Job Duties

Entry-level operators load materials, such as blocks of titanium, steel, aluminum, or plastic, into CNC machines to be shaped. They calculate the amount of material to be fed into the machine, and make adjustments to the operating speed based on vibrations and sounds that may indicate a malfunction. Upon completion, an operator inspects the fabricated part to make sure that it matches specifications. Operators are responsible for cleaning and maintaining equipment, and often operate multiple machines.

Experienced CNC set-up operators download control programs into individual machines and perform test operations to guarantee the machine properly creates the precise part. Set-up operators may work with a CNC programmer or modify the program directly before an entry-level operator takes over production.

Training Requirements

Aspiring CNC operators who have attained a high school diploma or equivalent are eligible for entry-level work. Some companies provide on-the-job training, while others participate in formal apprenticeship programs in conjunction with community colleges and technical schools. Apprenticeships might last up to four years and combine hands-on experience with classroom courses.

Individuals can learn skills through certificate or associate's degree programs in machine or manufacturing technology. Relevant coursework covers blueprints, computer-aided design, machining principles, and metals.

Voluntary certification may be obtained from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) upon successful completion of a two-part test on skills and theory (www.nims-skills.org). The NIMS awards three levels of machining certification based on CNC turning and milling skills.

Salary Info and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov), the median annual salary earned by computer-controlled machine tool operators for metals and plastic, the category under which CNC lathe operators fall, was $35,580 in May 2012. The employment of metal and plastic machine workers, including lathe operators, is expected to grow by six percent between 2010 and 2020, per the BLS.

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