An Ode to “Speaking CNC”

At the beginning of 2016 I moved to the applications engineering department after three years of software engineering at Okuma America. Since then, I’ve realized there’s a deep amount of communication required in the activity of operating a machine tool. Whether you’re writing G code by hand or using CAM software, you need to know not only the language of the CNC machine but also the languages of tooling, part drawings, customers and more.

Effective Communication

To decide whether your communication is effective, you need to decide what your goals are. Do you want everyone in your shop to describe their setups in writing so they can be reproduced next year? Do you want the chain of feedback from customer to programmer to be efficient? Do you want to get the most out of your tooling because the operators fully understand what adjustments the tooling vendors suggested? The AEs who run machine tools at Okuma communicate with customers to understand problems. They read part drawings, read others’ G code, work with others’ 3D models, and work with a myriad of partners providing tooling, steady rests, software, electronics packages, services and about anything else you can think of to tweak the last bit of productivity out of a machine tool.

Tips for Better Communication

Understanding the importance of communication we might want to maximize its effectiveness in our own work environments. Here are some tips to consider in that process:

Assess each person’s ability to communicate in their comfort zone. Especially with someone new to the shop, you need to understand what you’re building from. Maybe they’ve worked on cars a lot, so can they explain the process of changing a fuel pump? Can they describe what 20 ft-lbs of torque feels like? Even though they might not immediately make sense of rake angle and a description of how the chips look depending on rake angle, they may have the ability to communicate well in other technical areas. If they care about working with machine tools, they’re capable of learning to communicate well both about and with the machine tool.

Don’t forget that each person in your shop may have a unique “dictionary” of CNC terminology that can throw off even an experienced operator from another shop. Encourage people to describe their job processes in a way that others understand. Here at Okuma, we have Applications Engineers from widely varied backgrounds and everyone knows a different “standard” way of communicating but we all manage to communicate because we take turns describing a machining process to the whole group every Monday morning. Maybe one person calls a live turret tool base that sticks out in both +Z and -Z a “double tool” but someone else has another name for it. A stack of subtleties like this around the shop can really throw a new guy off, but by intentionally opening communication you’ll see everyone can agree on what they’re talking about.

Address the difference between personal preferences and rules. Good rules prevent bad habits and accidents but too many rules muddy the water and the important ones get lost. A simple example is in communicating with G code. When I started, one person told me “don’t fill it with comments.” Another said, “add comments everywhere.” One said “put a G1 on every G1 line, another said “put it once and tab out the next lines,” and yet another said “tabs don’t matter, leave them out!” The list goes on and on and when someone actually has something important to say like always put a G95 on your G50 line or always have minimal stick-out on stick tools, it’s lost in the layers of personal preference and rules of thumb. In other words, don’t make everything a rule! Figure out which rules matters most to the safety and smooth operation of the shop and emphasize those things.

Encourage checking in to see whether people understand. Although I received lots of repetitious communication on how to tune a cut, it initially didn’t make sense to me because I lacked a proper foundation of knowledge. To a point, I was encouraged to ask questions, but I was also given a book from one of our tooling vendors to take home and read. After reading that plus some machine manuals, I realized I could describe the problems I was having with cuts much more effectively. I didn’t yet know how to fix the problems, but being able to communicate about them opened doors for learning and allowed me to understand what changes were being suggested with my cutting setup. I also started realizing not everyone used the same language as the books to describe the same things.

A Breeding Ground for Innovation

There’s no one more intimately familiar with a task than the one who performs that task day after day. When people in your shop communicate about what they and everyone around them does, they’ll start to describe small changes in processes that mean big reductions of work down the line. Communication will breed creative improvements and solutions. Communicating well and sharing knowledge inside your shop will carry over to communication between your shop and 3rd parties. And as a bonus, if you’re all speaking the same language, at least you’ll all have the same blank look together when the tooling guy throws out a new term.

Speaking CNC

Personally, I’ve spent time learning four different languages: English, Spanish, Russian, and Korean and I’m currently beginning to learn Japanese, which I think is fitting, as an employee of Okuma. So yes, I’m a huge fan of language and communication. Although I’m an expert in none of those languages, I’m on a fast track to becoming fluent in “speaking CNC”, quite possibly the most fascinating language I’ve ever learned.

Tony Slagle is Applications Engineer, Okuma America Corporation.

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