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What is a CNC Programmer?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By anon994273 — On Jan 28, 2016

The term programmer in the job description CNC Programmer is not programming at all. Case in point is: The programmer can then enter an extensive series of numerical codes into a computer system that will eventually control the movements of machining equipment.

Instead of using the word 'programmer', perhaps data entry would be more correct. But this really isn't the case either since the 'series of numerical codes' is automatically derived from the tools used by the programmer, i.e., cam software. If a fellow were to create a program that converts dxf files to g-code then this would better describe the idea of actually programming.

By crysdye81 — On Jul 19, 2014

I am new to this site. I am trying to learn about becoming a CNC Programmer. I would to love hear anyone's feedback or advice on how to do this. I saw a post from someone named "gordo" that said " I am a CNC Programmer and love the job so much that I have started a blog about it." Gordo, I would love to read your blog and if possible, talk to you about being a programmer. You can post a message for me on here.

By anon316895 — On Jan 31, 2013

I'll agree that G code isn't so much programming and more machine instruction. On the other hand, Macro programming is very much programming. Anytime you need a CNC machine to be more intelligent and make decisions depending on the state of the machine or the state of the material/part you'll need to write macro programs. They're also useful for similar family of parts programs. That is very much programming.

It's a high level language with terrible abstraction. It has data manipulation, variables, dynamic parameters, etc. Look at the Renishaw probe macros to get an idea of how complex they can get.

By anon301500 — On Nov 04, 2012

A crankshaft does not drive pistons. You are programming the machine to operate and G-code or M-code is a tool used in the process. Think of it as Meta-Data.

By anon294017 — On Sep 28, 2012

@anon289082: That's literally all CNC "programming" is. How sensitive it is due to the machine working with real life material is irrelevant.

It's not a programming language because the end result isn't a program, it's data that gets interpreted by the machine. Even a scripting language would actually involve data manipulation, but g-code has no ability for computation - no dynamic parameters or even variables. It's no more fit to be considered programming than writing batch files.

By anon289082 — On Sep 02, 2012

@anon121549: If cnc programming is nothing more than data entry, then you produce an aircraft landing gear strut by entering any numbers you wish.

You use your extensive data entry skills to prevent a $750,000 machine that can accelerate at twice the acceleration of gravity from destroying itself and to correctly produce the mold for the keyboard that you posted your comment with.

By gordo — On Jul 18, 2012

I'm a cnc programmer, and love the job so much that I've even written a blog about it. It's definitely a good field to get into.

CNCs are evolving every day, and there is always room for a smart person to learn the new methods of machining and new technology.

By anon274368 — On Jun 11, 2012

G codes, M codes and other various codes are, in fact, entered.

By anon193692 — On Jul 05, 2011

A CNC Programmer is a vague term. In some situations they use computer software to generate the programs used by the machines. In other situations they must use trigonometry and coordinate geometry to calculate tool paths which can sometimes be extremely complex. They must then manually enter programs into the machines.

In all cases, a programmer requires vast knowledge beyond simply creating programs for machines if they hope to be successful in the field. The best CNC programmers possess all of the knowledge of a machinist, and a machinist never stops learning.

The machining industry is never ending and ever changing, ehich is why the top machinists/programmers in the industry can easily earn six figures per year.

By anon141872 — On Jan 11, 2011

@121549: Well I'm pretty sure the words cnc shows it uses numbers.

By anon137425 — On Dec 27, 2010

95 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot. Case in point, CNC "Programming" is as relative to "real programming" as anon121549 envisions it as HTML programming is. It *is* programming, but most people assume all programming is computer programming like Basic, C, or another high level language.

By anon134999 — On Dec 16, 2010

"Programming - creating a sequence of instructions to enable the computer to do something".

Above anon poster needs to check their dictionary definitions of the word programming. CNC programmers do indeed program, they write programmes. 90 percent of programs are, in fact, not derived from cad/cam software and are manually inputted by the operator. They use one of many programming languages to tell the machine what to do. Just like a computer programmer uses a language to tell the computer program what to do. It's essentially the same process.

By anon121549 — On Oct 25, 2010

The term programmer in the job description CNC Programmer is not programming at all. Case in point is: The programmer can then enter an extensive series of numerical codes into a computer system that will eventually control the movements of machining equipment.

Instead of using the word 'programmer', perhaps data entry would be more correct. But this really isn't the case either since the 'series of numerical codes' is automatically derived from the tools used by the programmer, i.e., cam software. If a fellow were to create a program that converts dxf files to g-code then this would better describe the idea of actually programming.

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