CNC Machining Vs. 3D Printing: Making The Right Choice

CNC machining vs. 3D printing for similar products
CNC machining vs. 3D printing for similar products

In today’s industrial world, many businesses are facing the need to either produce parts by CNC machining or 3D printing. For these reasons, the debate between CNC machining vs. 3D printing is more relevant than ever. So, which technology is right for your business? This article will explore the key differences between the two technologies. Find out also when to use CNC machining, 3D printing, or both.

CNC Machining and 3D Printing

Both CNC machining and 3D printing are manufacturing processes used to create parts or prototypes from a variety of materials. However, they have their major differences which set them apart. Let’s begin by looking at each type of manufacturing method individually before comparing them side-by-side.

About CNC Machining

CNC machining is a subtractive manufacturing process. That means that material is removed from a solid block to create the desired shape. CNC machining tools are computer-controlled and can create very precise and intricate shapes.

To remove the material, CNC machines use a variety of tools such as end mills, drill bits, and routers. The material is machined away in layers until the desired shape is achieved.

This technology can be used with different types of materials, such as metals, plastics, and composites. However, CNC machining materials are best if they’re strong and can withstand the high temperatures generated during the process.

About 3D Printing

On the other hand, 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process. It typically works by building up layers of material to create the desired shape.

To add the material, 3D printers use a variety of methods, such as extrusion, powder bed fusion, and vat photopolymerization. The material is added in layers until the desired shape is achieved.

This technology can be used with a number variety of materials. However, it works best with materials that are easy to melt or fuse together, such as plastics.

3D printing service is a great choice for businesses that need prototypes quickly. It is also ideal for creating complex shapes. Common applications for 3D printing include medical devices, eyewear frames, and jewelry.

CNC machining medical devices
CNC machining medical devices

CNC Machining Vs. 3D Printing

Both CNC machining and 3D printing are great technologies. But while that may be the case, there are still some scenarios where one technology is better than the other. Below is a comparison of CNC machining vs. 3D printing for different scenarios.

CNC Machining Vs. 3D Printing: Part Strength

CNC machining parts result in isotropic (equal in all directions) material properties. This is not the case with 3D-printed parts, where the build direction can have a significant impact on the final part strength. In general, CNC-machined parts are stronger than 3D-printed parts and exhibit excellent mechanical properties.

This is one of the main advantages of CNC machining. It also means CNC machined parts are better suited for high-stress applications such as automotive and aerospace components.

CNC Machining Vs. 3D Printing: Materials

You can machine virtually any material with a CNC machine, from soft types such as foam to extremely hard types like steel. Other examples of CNC machining materials include aluminum, brass, and bronze.

3D printers can also print with a wide range of materials. However, the range of materials that can be used is less extensive than that of CNC machining. Some examples of 3D printing materials include ABS plasticPLA plastic, and nylon. That makes the process less versatile.

CNC Machining Vs. 3D Printing: Lead Time

The lead time for CNC machined parts is usually longer than the lead time for 3D printed parts. That’s because CNC machining is a more complex process. It takes longer to set up the machine and program it to create the desired shape.

3D printing is a simpler process. As a result, 3D-printed parts usually have a shorter lead time. This greatly helps when creating prototypes, as the turnaround time is shorter.

CNC Machining Vs. 3D Printing: Accuracy

Precision CNC machining can create parts with very high accuracy. The tight CNC machining tolerances ( +/- 0.0001 inches) make the process an excellent choice for creating parts that require a high degree of accuracy, such as medical devices and aerospace components.

3D printers are high-accuracy machines but not as accurate as CNC machines. The tightest tolerance that can be achieved is +/- 0.005 inches. However, this is still quite accurate for most applications.

CNC Machining Vs. 3D: Cost

The cost of CNC machining vs. 3D printing will depend on several factors, including the technology used, the materials, the size and complexity of the part, and the quantity required. In general, CNC machining is more expensive than 3D printing when you only need a few parts, say less than 10.

That’s because CNC machining equipment requires a significant investment, and the process itself is more labor-intensive than 3D printing.

CNC is also usually more complex and requires extensively trained personnel and specialized equipment for fewer parts, as when prototyping, 3D printing becomes the cheaper option.

Plastic CNC machining
Plastic CNC machining

CNC Machining or 3D Printing?

Now that we’ve compared the two technologies let’s look at when it’s best to use CNC machining technology and when it’s best to use 3D printing. To better answer this question, we will look at specific applications and determine which technology best suits them.

  • How strong do you want your part to be? Use CNC machining if strength is a major concern and 3D printing if that can be compromised for other factors such as lead time or aesthetics.
  •  What material do you want to use? The range of CNC machining materials is wider than that of 3D printing. If you have a specific material in mind for your application, check to see if it’s compatible with both technologies.
  •  Do you need to produce your prototype quickly? Use 3D printing if you need a prototype quickly, such as when you want it within a day or two. With CNC machining, prototypes can take longer to produce.
  •  Is the accuracy of your part important? Use CNC machining service for high-accuracy applications such as parts that will need to fit together perfectly. CNC machining accuracy is generally higher.
  •  How many parts do you need? CNC machining is typically more economical for high-volume production runs. So, if you need several thousand parts, CNC machining may be the better option.

Will 3D Printing Replace CNC Machining?

3D printing will continue to grow in popularity, but it’s unlikely that it will ever completely replace CNC machining. The two technologies complement each other and are often used together in the manufacturing process.

For example, a company may use CNC machining techniques to create the metal components of a product and 3D printing to create the plastic components. Or, a company may use CNC machining to create the prototype of a product and then use 3D printing to produce the final product.


In conclusion, there is no clear winner in the CNC machining vs. 3D printing debate. Each technology has its own advantages and disadvantages and its place in the manufacturing world. It’s up to the manufacturer, therefore, to decide which technology is best for their specific application.

The best way to determine which technology is best for your project is to consult with a knowledgeable expert who can help you evaluate your options and make the best decision based on the project’s needs.

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