There are several ways that you can become a lathe machinist. Many people get on-the-job training, but others choose to get a degree at a vocational or technical school. In some countries, people enroll in structured apprenticeship programs to learn to become a lathe machinist. Often people enter the field as a machine operator before moving to the next level of machine setup or computer numeric control (CNC) programming for industrial lathes.
Some of the best vocational schools and technical colleges combine classroom sessions and in-school hands-on training with real-world work-study employment or apprenticeship. Typically, people who graduate from these institutions are qualified to be programmers for several different types of machines. Employers often prefer to hire applicants who are experienced in a variety of machines, such as lathes, mills, and other industrial machines. Another advantage of the work-study program is the experience you gain in a shop environment.
By reading several job descriptions for lathe machinists or similar CNC operators, an applicant will ascertain the requirements. One of the first requirments that employers list is experience. Other skills include understanding blueprints, using gages and tooling, and having knowledge of shop math to gauge tolerances. Often employers want applicants to have other areas of experience, such as use of hoists or other shop equipment. Sometimes there are physical requirements, like the ability to lift 50 pounds (about 23 kilograms).
In some countries, to become a lathe machinist a person must pass an exam for certification. Generally, having a certificate is a good way to show a prospective employer that you are knowledgeable about lathes. Sometimes states or regions offer certifications, and often machinist associations or societies list places that give the exams. Inquire at vocational schools and technical colleges about certificates. Often these require less schooling than full degrees.
There are three levels of lathe operators. The first is the entry-level job. This person generally loads and unloads the lathes and tends to the lathe while it is running. He may be responsible for replacing worn cutting tools and make minor adjustments to ensure high-quality work. Typically, this job requires a person to use gauges to maintain blueprint tolerances.
The next level is the setup position. This person can operate lathes and set them up according to the blueprint specifications. Sometimes employers refer to this person as the CNC machinist, although often any person who works with industrial machines is called a machinist. A setup person needs to have a thorough understanding of CNC programs, tools, and product specifications.
The CNC programmer writes the programs that the setup person programs into the CNC lathe. Usually programmers have had some formal training, like schooling or apprenticeship. Frequently, employers expect programmers be familiar with the machines, and usually programmers started out at the entry level.
To become a lathe machinist who offers versatility to an employer, a person should try to get experience on several different types of lathes. Some examples are the engine lathe, turret lathe, and any special-purpose lathes that a company may have. Some companies specialize in mass production, making thousands of parts with the same program and equipment. Other companies — usually small machine-shop businesses — concentrate on small custom orders, such as prototypes. In the small machine shops, a worker usually needs to be versatile in a variety of jobs and willing to be flexible.