A brake press operator controls the large machines used to bend and shape metal sheets at a fabrication shop or manufacturing plant. He or she studies blueprints, takes careful measurements, and feeds raw material into programmed brake presses to produce custom sheets and metal parts. Most modern brake presses, especially those used in large plants, are computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines. They are fully automated robotic machines, making bends, curves, and punch holes according to electronic instructions inputted by the brake press operator.
CNC brake presses are complex pieces of machinery, and manipulating them to create precision bends and curves requires the specialized skills of a highly-trained brake press operator. Other specialists called programmers typically create the general instructions for presses, and operators make small adjustments to their codes to prepare machines for specific jobs. The operator first determines the exact dimensions and angles needed for a final product by studying blueprints, and then inputs information into the computer program. He or she aligns a blank sheet on the base or feeding bar of the machine, turns it on, and monitors the progress of the job.
Once a piece has been created, the brake press operator thoroughly inspects it to make sure it meets specifications. If something is not quite right, the operator can adjust the programming code and start over with a new blank sheet. In addition to programming and controlling machines, operators are often responsible for routine maintenance duties to keep presses in proper working order. They clean pieces of equipment, inspect them for worn gears, and replace parts as necessary.
In some smaller fabrication shops, operators manually control mechanical or hydraulic brake presses instead of inputting numerical commands. A professional must align a blank sheet according to specifications, adjust the depth and force of the punch, and work the metal by manipulating levers. There is much more room for error working with manual presses, though a skilled, careful brake press operator can still produce high-quality end products without the benefit of preset computer commands.
Most new brake press operators receive their training on the job through formal apprenticeships, though some employers prefer to hire graduates of two-year vocational school programs. As an apprentice, an individual learns about policies, procedures, and techniques from experienced operators and supervisors. He or she usually begins working with relatively simple setups to become familiar with machinery and CNC programs before moving on to more complex projects. With experience, an apprentice is often given more responsibilities and eventually allowed to work largely unsupervised.