A Computer Numerical Control (CNC) lathe operator is responsible for the operation and maintenance of CNC lathes. The lathe is a very important component of nearly all manufacturing facilities, because it allows for raw materials — such as metal, wood and plastic — to be shaped and turned with extreme precision. A lathe works by rotating a piece of raw material at high speeds while a sharp cutting tool shapes and cuts it down to a desired shape or size. Over the decades, lathes mostly have been manually operated, with the workpiece turned through belt drives. Most modern lathes are controlled with a computer, but some work is still required to be carried out by a CNC lathe operator.
When a manufacturing company wants to create a part using a CNC lathe, the desired part must first be drafted using a computer aided design (CAD) program or, more often than not, a computer aided manufacturing (CAM) program. A CNC lathe operator then takes the design and downloads it to a CNC lathe, fits the right tools and then secures the workpiece into the lathe chuck. From there, the lathe automatically machines the piece to exactly what is shown in the design.
Jobs operating a CNC lathe are far more than just drafting a design, plugging it in and watching the lathe do its work. One of the most important parts of the entire process is making sure that the lathe tools are sharp. When they become dull, the operator needs to remove and replace the worn tools. Along with occasional tool replacement, a CNC lathe operator also is responsible for keeping a close eye on the machining process, making sure that no problems arise and troubleshooting them when they do. Along with this, lathe operators also need to be able to remove and handle the machined parts.
Other duties of a CNC lathe machine operator include general maintenance of the machine itself. The operator should be reasonably familiar with the inner components of the lathe, so that he or she can make sure that the lathe is working properly and repair any problems without outside assistance. A CNC lathe operator also must have good hearing, because most lathe operators are required to monitor multiple lathes at once. For this reason, problems are often detected through sound alone.
One often needs nothing more than a high school diploma to be admitted into basic CNC lathe operation jobs or training to become one. Those wishing to succeed in this position often go on to get a degree from a vocational school or community college where CNC training is available.