Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines are essential pieces of equipment in most modern factories, manufacturing plants, and machinist shops. In the past, workers manually controlled the heavy equipment used to cut, shape, and form products from raw wood and metals. A CNC programmer can now input highly-detailed instructions into a computer system that guides robotic arms and tools to perform precision machining jobs. Skilled CNC programmers are able to greatly improve the efficiency of production and the quality of finished products.
Before designing a new program, a CNC programmer will study blueprints, tweak computer-aided drafting (CAD) software simulators, and calibrate robotic equipment. He or she determines the exact dimensions of the item that is to be produced, and decides the best means of cutting, welding, and boring raw materials. For example, a CNC programmer at an automobile manufacturing plant may wish to program a machine to manufacture a new crankshaft, the part that drives pistons in an engine. He or she first studies blueprints for the proposed crankshaft and identifies precise radii and gear ratios of component sections. The programmer can then enter an extensive series of numerical codes into a computer system that will eventually control the movements of machining equipment.
The CNC programmer constantly refers to drawings and CAD programs to ensure codes are entered in the correct sequence. Once the professional is confident in the program, he or she can put the machine through a series of test runs to make sure it works correctly. The programmer notes any discrepancies between test products and blueprint specifications, and adjusts his or her program accordingly. Once a program is perfected, it can be implemented across a number of machines to begin the mass production of the item.
There are no set education requirements to become a CNC programmer, but many professionals who work with very detailed machinery and technology hold college degrees in mechanical engineering. Some programmers are able to enter the field after earning certificates from two-year community colleges or vocational skills. In addition, many machinists and CNC machine operators eventually become programmers after gaining several years of experience in the industry. A hopeful CNC programmer can also pursue voluntary certification from a respected national or regional organization to improve his or her credentials and chances of finding work.
New programmers often spend several months in apprenticeships or assistant positions in order to gain practical, supervised experience working with different types of programs and machines. As they become familiar with the equipment, they often are gradually given more responsibilities and eventually allowed to work independently on new programs. CNC programmers usually decide to pursue continuing education, attend seminars, and read industry journals to stay updated on the latest advancements in technology and techniques.