Differences Between A CNC Operator And A CNC Machinist

Differences Between a CNC Operator and a CNC Machinist

If you’re planning to invest in a CNC plasma cutter and table, you may also need to hire a person to run the system, especially if your internal staff isn’t skilled in CNC functionality. When it comes to recruitment, you may struggle to choose between a CNC operator and a CNC machinist.

How do these professionals differ in their work? Who do you hire to oversee your production? Let us make things simpler for you.

The Three Roles in CNC Machining

When it comes to CNC machine production, the number of roles available in the workshop will vary depending on the company’s size. A single operator will run the whole system for small companies, performing every role. In bigger companies, the roles will be split out accordingly:

1. CNC Machinist/Programmer

At the top of the chain is the machinist or programmer. These are the people who understand not only how the machine works and runs but also how to program it. The machinist ensures the machine can perform its functions, which requires knowledge. This person will usually have worked every role in the chain to gain this knowledge, which is why smaller businesses will have only the machinist to perform every role.

Who is a CNC Machinist?

A CNC machinist’s main job is to design the instructions that the CNC will use to turn basic materials into fully-made products. Assuming a workshop that allows for the roles to be split, a machinist will spend most of their time working out the specifics of the parts being made.

A machinist must have spent plenty of time working on and with CNC machines to attain their role. They must know how they work on every level, which determines how they program them. This is especially important for smaller companies, as they will likely be required to perform every duty in the CNC operation.

The job description for a CNC machinist will usually include the following:

  • CNC machinery programming
  • CAD (or similar software) experience
  • Quality control experience
  • Managing operatives and other staff
  • Understanding of blueprints and design documents
  • Mathematics skills or qualifications

2. CNC Setup Operator

The setup operator is the one who takes the program details from the machinist and loads it into the CNC machine. Their job is to ensure the machine is stocked with all the necessary materials. They also program it with the required instructions. In some companies, this role is also given to the operator. If so, it requires at least some experience with the machine to perform. Therefore, it pays to keep this role separate from the primary operator role.

Who is a CNC Setup Operator?

A Setup Operator is responsible for preparing the CNC machine to complete projects. This person receives instruction from the Machinist and ensures the proper information and supplies are loaded in the machine.

The following qualifications are likely to be listed in the job description:

  • Perform all set-up for machining operations
  • Retrieve, edit, and execute CNC programs
  • Operate machines according to drawings and specifications
  • Load stock into the appropriate feed system
  • Document success and failures and provide feedback to the Machinist
  • Create machining plans based on blueprints, work orders, drawings, and materials

3. CNC Operator

To put it simply: the operator is the one who presses the “on” button and uses the CNC machine to make the desired products. This is the most basic role in the chain and requires little to no prior knowledge of the machine or its process. Every machinist will have spent at least some time training for this role, and the knowledge gained doing it will help them in future roles.

Who is a CNC Operator?

An operator’s main task is ensuring the CNC machine is working and producing the pieces required by the factory/assembly line.

Working as an operative means learning all the basic controls of a CNC machine and how they work. This is an ideal entry-level role for anyone looking to get into engineering or CNC machining. There is no programming involved, so there is no required knowledge of CAD or other design software. These things will be taught in time to anyone willing to progress through the roles.

A typical job description for an operator will include the following:

  • Loading and unloading of raw materials
  • Calibrate and set up machine equipment
  • Maintain production records
  • Maintain and clean equipment and accessories
  • Supervise running machines
  • Inspect finished products for quality and accuracy

Pathway to Landing A CNC Operator/Machinist Role

Basic Training

The career path of a CNC specialist will vary depending on the industry, but most people will begin with their time as an operator. This opportunity can appear as a standalone job for any production warehouse that provides CNC machining. It can also be acquired through CNC-specific training programs.

With training programs, many will typically follow a multi-week course in which the student will learn and perform the above-mentioned role. They will spend time running CNC machines, learning the processes of loading and setup, and product control. When they have enough time to perform these basic tasks, they may be offered a role as a setup operator.

Practical Application

During this time, they will have the opportunity to learn how the setup of CNC machines works. Learning how to take a programmer’s code and load it into a CNC machine gives operatives a better understanding of how the process works. With enough time, experience, and knowledge, they will be ready to advance to the role of machinist.

Machinist training

Going from an operative to a programmer/machinist will require more formal training, specifically in programming skills. These programs require different knowledge and experience. The machinist’s job is to take a client’s requirements for parts and turn them into instructions for the CNC machine to follow. This means knowing not only how to design these parts but also how to translate these designs into instructions.

Another vital aspect is management skills. A machinist needs to be able to delegate tasks and understand how to lead a team of operatives to achieve their goals. Learning these skills can be done through some management training courses or real-world opportunities. On-the-job training can be rockier, and companies are more likely to hire someone with decent qualifications.


The roles of CNC operatives and CNC machinists sound similar from afar, but they are very specific, very distinct roles up close. For anyone looking to hire someone to operate their plasma CNC machine, it is vital to know these differences. Hopefully, you’ll now be able to onboard the right worker based on the current needs of your production project.

 Simon Patterson

Simon Patterson

Simon Patterson is the owner and founder of Squickmon's Engineering & Engineering. With over 15 years of fabrication and manufacturing experience, alongside a mechanical engineering degree, he knows exactly what it takes to create a quality product for small fabrication shops as well as large industrial manufacturing companies. He set out to create a company that stands by their products with confidence as well as integrity. His goal was to build a company with a strong foundation, quality product, satisfied customers, and a product that is 100 percent designed and built in the USA.

Your Cart is empty!

It looks like you haven't added any items to your cart yet.

Browse Products
Powered Voltage Emoji by Caddy