The precision of a CNC machine is incredibly impressive: cutting to 0.001” (about 1/4 the width of a human hair). That capability may lead those unfamiliar with CNC machining to assume that it is advanced equipment that makes a CNC machine shop perform well.
Not so fast! There’s complexity within a CNC machine shop’s processes that requires dozens of people working in unison. In fact, we recently celebrated how the skilled people within a CNC machine shop really make the difference in meeting customers’ needs and consistently exceeding their expectations.
When it comes down to it, no member of a CNC machine shop team falls short of “must have” status. Most high-end shops run lean and efficiently, with each employee contributing to the shop’s success in important, but different, ways. Let’s take a look!
Roles and Responsibilities
As we explore each role in a CNC machine shop, take note of how the responsibilities of each complement the other roles. It really should be one cohesive team working in unison.
1. Manufacturing Engineers
Most projects really get rolling when upfront fixture design and CNC programming begins. Engineers review the part blueprint to determine the fixture design, taking into account all critical features as well as the project’s budget.
Using a 3D Computer Aided Design (CAD) tool, the fixture is designed to hold the part inside a CNC machine center. As much as the design tool is leaned on, the best CNC fixtures are a combination of engineering, art, and teamwork.
Some engineering departments include robotic and automation experts, mostly because some work cells need to produce large parts at a high volume. Select engineers receive special training in robotics to add another level of performance to the shop.
2. Set-Up Operators/Lead Team
These are two different, yet very connected, roles. Setup operators ensure that changeovers on the floor happen smoothly, correctly, and efficiently. At the same time, this role includes mentoring of CNC operators (see #3 below) who are running the parts daily and also developing their skills.
This is important because the best CNC machine shops take pride in developing talent and promoting from within. Current CNC operators will be future set-up pros and, eventually, lead people (or supervisors) who likely do more troubleshooting and training than just set-up and switch-over.
3. CNC Operators
CNC operators, the people running the actual parts, are typically detail oriented individuals who enjoy mentally stimulating, hands-on work. They control precision machine tools — remember the 0.001” cuts? — such as lathes and mills to cut, grind, turn, mill, and/or drill raw material (metal, plastic, etc.) into usable parts. I’m only sharing the basics here because we covered what a CNC operator does in a previous blog.
4. Quality Assurance
I nearly began this article with this role. Many people think of quality control as just checking parts at the end of the process, perhaps using a CMM (coordinate measuring machine) at the beginning of each shift to ensure parts are meeting customer drawings.
In fact, this team is very important early in the process and throughout it. In addition to running a new Part Production Approval Process (PPAP) and their submissions, quality assurance audits production runs and ensures CNC operators are performing quality audits as required.
For specific projects, QA works with the engineering team on the pre-production Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) process and also works hand in hand with customers and foundry suppliers on new parts.
5. Customer Service/Scheduling
Schedulers within a CNC machine shop have a huge undertaking in trying to manage all in-house projects and those yet to come. Machine cells are valuable assets that need to be running but not overbooked.
Often, this team is at the mercy of suppliers to meet their delivery dates so that the shop’s customers can receive their machined parts to meet their schedules. This is especially difficult during tough times such as a global pandemic. If a foundry experiences unexpected sick days, it can throw off an inexperienced scheduling team.
This brings up a valuable aspect of CNC machining: having great partner relationships with suppliers. It’s a lonely feeling when you hear castings won’t arrive on time. With an established customer service team and trusted relationships, a shop is far less likely to disappoint any customers.
Constant contact. It takes real effort for a sales account manager to continue a connection with a customer to ensure that everything is satisfactory for a project. The best sales teams follow a project from launch throughout production until completion.
Challenges usually arise at some point, and customers love when their account manager directly handles an issue or question instead of getting in touch with an engineer and delaying progress. That’s how long-term relationships develop in the CNC machining world.
Another “must have” reason for having account managers highly involved is to generate new work, obviously. Yet, beyond the additional revenue, the sales team at world-class CNC shops wants to bring in new customers with new and different challenges. It’s the best way to diversify a skill set and grow.
Imagine when all of the previous six job responsibilities are done right only to have the part get damaged in shipping. All that great work and investment is gone. That’s a worst case scenario, of course, but it brings to light the importance of shipping and receiving.
Not only do completed parts need to quickly exit the shop, this team needs to manage incoming materials and move them throughout the shop all day long. That can be a logistics nightmare with thousands of parts traveling where they need to go.
How Culture Influences Quality
It takes a unique CNC shop to excel in all “must have” areas, and much of that comes down to culture. Only when individuals are motivated and communicating well can the entire organization plan properly, implement processes, and make adjustments when needed.
Quality relies on everyone, even the tasks not seen as the most glamorous or highest paid, to perform in the best interest of customers. It comes down to having a positive work environment and a culture of pride for doing things the right way the first time.
At Stecker Machine, we celebrate together when things go right and never finger-point when times are challenging. We all do our jobs, and we all contribute to get parts out the door and make customers happy. We’re all “must have” employees.
When CNC machine shop teams work together, efficiency often results. To dig deeper into lean manufacturing, even if you don’t have a formal lean program, get our guide, The Benefits of Lean Manufacturing in Machine Shops.