CNC operators represent manufacturing’s high-tech future

By Jan Burns
Jobs Correspondent

Computer numerically controlled machines, which are programmed to drill, cut and shape highly precise items, have to be run by CNC operators who have been properly trained to run them.

Houston Community College offers training for this field at its Advanced Manufacturing Technology Institute.

It starts with a Level I certificate in Basic Machining Technology, followed by a Level II certificate in Intermediate Machining Technology, which leads to an associate degree in Applied Science in Machining Engineering Technology. This pathway allows students to complete basic training that gives them the opportunity to apply for entry-level positions in the field.

“We receive calls constantly from local employers, asking for an opportunity to interview our upcoming program graduates and to help them train incumbent workers,” said Madeline Burillo, associate vice chancellor of Workforce Instruction. “At HCC we boil the broad world of computerized numerical control down to the two most common machine types: turning centers, which spin the material while the cutter is held stationary, and milling centers, which spin a cutting bit while the material is held stationary. Both of these machines work by cutting the raw material into a finished piece.”

“Most of the CNC work in Houston today is done by these two types of machines. In addition, we cover additional important skills such as lean manufacturing skills,” said Brian Nolen, machining instructor at HCC. “CNC machinery is deceptively easy to operate. To an onlooker the machines appear to run themselves. But they can’t work at all without a trained operator, who understands how the machine works, and how it relates to the raw material being cut.”

“A graduate of HCC’s Machine Operations program will be ready for these jobs, because the understanding of turning and milling centers translates directly to the operation of a whole world of carving and forming machinery,” said Roberto Sanchez, department chair for the HCC Advanced Manufacturing Technology Institute.

The HCC shop has more than 60 pieces of manual machining equipment, six computerized numerical control machines, five robotic arms, a computer integrated manufacturing cell, and a 1,500-square-foot computer lab with 58 networked computer stations.

These computers are installed with up-to-date application software as well as CAD/CAM software packages. “CNC operators are in high demand in the Houston area,” said Daniel Gibbs, of Skilled Craftsmen of Texas. “They’re especially used in the oil and gas industries, plastics and small aerospace divisions.”

When asked what type of person would be good at the job, Gibbs said, “Someone who is detail-oriented, has knowledge of more than basic math – more like algebra, because they have to work with dimensions.”

Gibbs said that training is available at area community colleges, or someone might be hired as a general laborer or shop helper, and pick up the required training on the job.

Economic Modeling Specialists Inc. data indicate a 12 to 20 percent increase in hiring demand for CNC technicians and machinists from 2010 to 2013.