What Is The Key To Being A Good Machinist?

Do you want to be a “Button Pusher” for the rest of your life?? Some people don’t have any motivation in life, so they continue doing the same old job in a machine shop for years, or possibly decades. But, if you’re like me, you want to keep moving up in the industry. To do that you have to have some natural ability, but more importantly, you have to be willing to work hard and learn from wiser machinists.

Starting out at the very bottom (yes, I mean sweeping the floor of your local machine shop) is where some of the best machinists alive today started when they were in high school. If you’re a good worker and your boss sees that you have some potential, you will get promoted. Trust me. It may take several months, or even a couple years, but eventually you’ll work your way to running and setting up machines if you have the desire.

Feeds and Speeds

If you want to be an independent CNC machinist, you HAVE TO know your feeds and speeds. In a production shop, most of their money is made by perfecting the speeds and feeds of each individual job. If you can save a few minutes here and there, or even seconds, it all adds up, especially if you are making hundreds of thousands of the same parts. Time is money in a machine shop, and if you aren’t efficient, you aren’t making money.

Which leads us to our next topic…

Fixture and Tooling

Making a part/programming is usually the easy part. Making a fixture and selecting the right tooling that will make the job run as efficient as possible is not always easy. Some jobs require special jigs, fixtures, clamps, or something exotic to hold the parts. The tighter the tolerances, the better the fixture has to be made.

The difference between using cheap tooling that works and the right tooling that is more expensive but performs better will be huge. In a job shop every minute counts, so if buying an end mill that costs twice as much as normal will last ten times as long and allow you to cut faster, it could mean the difference between making money and losing money.

Knowing what type of end mill, drill, or tap for a 303-stainless part will come with time and experience. Not only do you have to have the right tool for the job, but starting with the correct surface foot is key. Once you get a job set-up that is running 100% with no problems, then you can start optimizing the feeds and speeds.

Problem Solver

Can you come up to a problem with little to no knowledge of what was done by the previous person and fix it within a reasonable time? Machining requires problem solving almost every day, whether the previous person on the machine messed up a set-up and left a mess for you, or you’re programming a new part and the tool keeps breaking. Like everything else, with more experience, you will be able to solve more problems. Eventually you will come up to a problem that you’ve seen more than once before and know exactly what to do.

Be Teachable

Are you hard to get along with and known as a “know-it-all”? Sorry about your luck, but you probably won’t get very far in this industry with that mindset. Machine shops run the best when everyone helps each other out. No matter what you think, there will almost always be someone that knows more than you. So if they try and correct you on something you’re doing wrong, pay attention and thank them. Watch how they do things and try to learn as much as possible from them. This will help in the long run for everyone, and especially yourself if you want to move up in this industry, which will ultimately lead to higher wages.

This Is An Underpaid Profession

For what you have to know, many CNC Machinist positions are not paid enough. Before I go any further, I want to point out that anyone can make a living as a machinist if he/she puts forth the effort, especially with overtime hours. If I were to go over all the details of what all you have to know to be a true CNC Machinist that can virtually run a shop, it would be the size of a novel, and I don’t have time for that right now.

After you get your feet wet in a shop after getting some machinist experience, you’ll quickly realize what it takes to be able to make a part from start to finish. And if there’s any problems on the way, a machinist has to know how to solve it quickly to be able to make positive cash-flow.

CNC Machine Shop – What Is In It?

While every machine shop is different, you’ll see similar set-ups when you walk through them. There will usually be the main area where all of the CNC milling or turning centers are, as well as a section to deburr parts. Sometimes there will be deburring tools/machines next to the machine you’re running if the operator does all of the deburring.

Usually in a different area there will be a stock room with all of the raw materials needed for upcoming jobs. These few rooms or areas make up a CNC Machine Shop, which is usually a large industrial or steel building, as well as a small pole barn or garage, depending on how big the company is.

Stock Room

Round stock, square stock, and tubing are the most common, and they are usually 8 or 12 foot bars in length. There should also be a band saw in this same room so that someone can cut up the right size stock for each job. Most shops have an automatic horizontal band-saws so that they can cut a large quantity of parts in a short period of time with relatively close tolerances.

Machines

Machine Shop
Machine Shop

Depending on what kind of a machine shop you’re in, there’s a lot of milling machines that could be running. While milling and turning centers are the most common, there’s many more machines, as well as different variations of each.

A shop can have vertical or horizontal milling centers, depending on how complex their parts on, and if they’re a job shop or a production shop. Vertical mills are the most common because they’re cheaper and easier to use and set up.

Lathes are pretty similar, but they can be a flat-bed, slant-bed, multi-axis, or have live tooling for special jobs.

Other machines include, but not limited to: Wire EDM, waterjet, press brake, turret punch, CNC laser, as well as miscellaneous deburring machines (tumbler, straightliner, grinders).

Deburring

Like mentioned above, there will be some deburring tools/machines if the company wants to save money by doing all or most of it themselves. Often times there will be a drill press and grinder next to each mill so the operator can do most of the deburring right there in between cycle times.

The higher quality and quantity the parts, the bigger and better the deburring equipment will be. Giant tumblers/vibratory tubs are often used in large production shops for basic deburring. Media blasting is also common for parts if they are to be plated or coating with something. Zinc, chromate, anodizing, hardcoat/powdercoat, and nickel are just a few coatings that are done to machined parts to give them a better look, last longer, and/or function different.

Inspection Room

Clean Inspection Room
Clean Inspection Room

The inspection room should be separate and enclosed from the shop. If parts have close tolerances, there will be expensive inspection equipment, and the room will be temperature controlled so all of the readings are accurate and consistent.

Tools will include: a granite surface plate, height gage, CMM, bore gage, go/no-go gages for specific jobs, optical comparator, profilometer, thread gages, and gage pins. Not every job will have all of these tools, but some will have more.

Depending on how big the shop is, you (the Machinist), may or may not be inspecting your own parts. The more machines and tools you learn how to use, the better off you will be, so try to get in on how to use the equipment if there is an inspector at your shop.

Well, that’s the jist of what a CNC Shop has on the inside of it! Check out my other articles for tips on becoming a CNC Machinist. Stay tuned for more…