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3D Printing Vs. Injection Molding: Choose the Best Method for Your Project

Published on: 2023-11-27

“The decision between 3D printing and injection molding isn’t just a choice between two processes; it’s a crossroads where innovation meets tradition. The right decision can redefine the boundaries of creativity and practicality for customization and mass-produced perfection.”

3D printing Vs. Injection molding is always a complex choice when creating plastic components, regardless of any industry application. These techniques represent a unique avenue for turning raw materials into functional products, but they diverge significantly in their approach, application, and implications for the future of production. 3D printing offers unparalleled flexibility and customization. It enables designers to transform digital blueprints into tangible objects layer by layer. On the other side, Injection molding produces everything from simple household items to complex automotive components. 

This article will describe the various nuances of 3D printing and Injection molding to guide you in making the best decision for your plastic products.


The Fundamentals of 3D Printing and Injection Molding

The manufacturing sector is witnessing a revolutionary era with the advent of 3D printing and the enduring presence of injection molding. These two methodologies, though aimed at creating physical products, follow distinctly different paths in terms of their processes, principles, and advantages.

1. Injection Molding

Injection Molding Plastic: Thermoplastic vs. Thermoset is a manufacturing process primarily used for mass-producing parts by injecting molten plastics into a mold. This method is popular for plastic item production, ranging from small components like bottle caps to automotive body panels. 

The Injection molding process begins with melting plastic pellets, and then injecting them under high pressure into a mold cavity. This cavity is the mirror of the desired shape of the final product. As the material cools and solidifies, it takes on the form of a cavity, after which the part is ejected from the mold.

Injection molded parts

The advantage of injection molding lies in its efficiency and scalability. Once the initial costs of creating the molds are covered, the production cost per unit becomes relatively low, especially in high-volume runs. Additionally, injection molding allows to creation of complex and precise shapes from a wide range of Plastics.

2. 3D Printing

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process that creates objects by layering material, usually plastic, metal, or resin, based on a digital model. Unlike traditional manufacturing methods that remove material to create shapes (subtractive manufacturing), 3D printing adds material layer by layer to build a product. This process starts with a digital design, typically created in a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) program. The 3D printer then reads this design and lays down successive layers of material until the object is fully formed.

3D printing of plastic part

One of the most significant advantages of 3D printing is its ability to create complex and intricate designs that would be difficult or impossible to achieve through traditional manufacturing methods. This flexibility opens up new possibilities in design and manufacturing, allowing for customization and rapid prototyping without the upfront cost of tooling or molds. 


Pros and Cons of Injection Molding

Injection molding is a widely used manufacturing technique known for its precision and efficiency, particularly in high-volume production. However, like any process, it comes with its own advantages and drawbacks, which are crucial to consider when selecting a manufacturing method.

Pros of Injection Molding

Injection molding is celebrated for its unparalleled efficiency in mass production, offering a fast, consistent, and cost-effective way to manufacture products. This method excels in producing parts with complex geometries, maintaining high precision and consistency across large production volumes. The process also allows various materials and color options, catering to different industry requirements.

  • High Production Efficiency: Ideal for large-scale production with a fast production cycle.
  • Consistent Quality: Ensures uniformity and precision across all produced parts.
  • Complex Part Production: Capable of creating intricate designs and detailed features.
  • Economical for Mass Production: Reduced per-unit cost in high-volume production.
  • Wide Range of Materials: Compatible with a variety of materials, including plastics, metals, and composites.
  • Color Integration: Ability to incorporate colors directly into the manufacturing process.
  • Enhanced Strength: Products are generally robust and long-lasting.
  • Reduced Waste: Advanced techniques can minimize excess material usage.
  • Automation Potential: Highly compatible with automated systems for increased efficiency.
  • Scalability: Easily scalable for increasing production volumes without significant additional costs.

Cons of Injection Molding

Despite its advantages, injection molding does have some limitations. The initial cost and time investment in creating molds can be significant, making it less ideal for small business small-batch production runs. The process also has design constraints, as not all shapes can be easily molded, and alterations in design can be costly and time-consuming. Additionally, injection molding has an environmental impact concern, mainly when using certain plastics, which concerns sustainability-focused businesses.

  • High Initial Cost: Significant investment is required for mold design and production setup.
  • Limited Design Flexibility: Changes in design can be expensive and increase lead times.
  • Not Cost-Effective for Small Runs: Higher costs for low-volume productions due to initial setup expenses.
  • Environmental Concerns: Potential negative impact, especially when using non-recyclable plastics.
  • Potential for Material Waste: Material wastage can occur during the production process.

Related: Why is CNC Machining Better than Injection Molding for Thermoplastic Prototyping? 


Pros and Cons of 3D Printing

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has changed our thinking about design and production. While it offers unparalleled flexibility and customization, it also has limitations, making it crucial to understand its full spectrum of advantages and drawbacks.

Pros of 3D Printing

3D printing stands out for its exceptional ability to create complex and intricate designs. It enables rapid prototyping, allowing designers to iterate and refine their ideas quickly. This process is also known for its minimal waste production, as it only uses the material necessary for the part itself, contributing to sustainable manufacturing practices. There are many types of 3D printing materials, from PLA plastics to different alloys. 

  • Design Flexibility: Allows for complex and intricate designs.
  • Rapid Prototyping: Speeds up the design and development process.
  • Minimal Waste Production: Uses only the necessary material, reducing waste.
  • Low Setup Costs: No need for expensive molds or tooling.
  • Customization: Ideal for producing customized or bespoke items.
  • Accessibility: Suitable for small-scale productions and hobbyists.
  • Material Diversity: Compatible with various materials, including plastics, metals, and composites.
  • Reduced Lead Time: Faster from design to final product.
  • Innovative Applications: Opens possibilities for customized prosthetics in sectors like healthcare.
  • Educational and Experimental Use: Enables learning and experimentation in design and engineering.

Related: From Playful to Protective: Unveiling the World of 3D Printed Cats

Cons of 3D Printing

Despite its advantages, 3D printing is not without its limitations. The process is generally slower than traditional manufacturing methods, making it less suitable for high-volume production. The strength and durability of 3D printed parts can be inferior to those produced by injection molding, potentially limiting their use in certain applications.

  • Slower Production Speed: Not ideal for high-volume manufacturing.
  • Strength and Durability Concerns: Printed parts may not be as strong as those produced by traditional methods.
  • Higher Cost Per Unit: Larger or more detailed prints can be expensive.
  • Technical Knowledge Required: Requires expertise in 3D modeling and printer operation.
  • Quality Inconsistencies: Risk of print failures or variations in quality.
  • Material Limitations: Some materials may not be suitable for certain applications.
  • Post-Processing Requirements: Additional steps may be needed for finishing the product.
  • Size Limitations: Restricted by the size of the 3D printer.
  • Energy Consumption: Can be energy-intensive, especially for metal printing.
  • Limited Resolution and Surface Finish: This may require further processing for a smooth finish.


What are the Key Differences between 3D Printing and Injection Molding?

3D printing and injection molding are often seen as competing technologies, each with unique strengths and applications While 3D printing offers unparalleled customization and flexibility, injection molding is unbeatable in high-volume production efficiency and reduces the cost of plastic parts. 

Injection molded automotive parts

Let’s discuss the key differences between 3D printing and Injection molding with a   head-to-head comparison, which reveals the nuances that make each method suitable for manufacturing scenarios.

Table: Comparison of 3D printing and Injection Molding

Comparison Criteria Injection Molding 3D Printing
Initial Setup Cost High, due to mold fabrication (e.g., $10,000 – $50,000) Relatively low, as no mold is required
Cost Per Unit Low for large volumes, costs decrease with scale Typically higher, especially for one-offs or small batches
Production Speed Rapid, seconds to minutes per part, ideal for large-scale production Slower, hours per part, vary with complexity and size
Material Variety Extensive, including various plastics and metals, suited for high-stress applications Wide, including plastics, metals, and resins, but suitability varies per application
Production Volume Highly efficient for mass production, thousands to millions of units Best for small batches, prototypes, and bespoke items
Customization Costly and time-consuming for mold alterations High flexibility, easy-to-modify designs digitally
Strength and Durability Generally high, parts are robust and suitable for functional use Variable and depends on printing technology and material
Precision and Consistency Extremely precise, with tight tolerances (e.g., ±0.005 inches) Good precision, but can vary (e.g., ±0.1 mm to ±0.5 mm)
Environmental Impact Higher due to material waste in the process and energy usage Potentially lower, less waste and more sustainable materials
Design Complexity Capability Complex designs are possible but limited by mold constraints Excellent for complex geometries and intricate details
Tolerance and Finish Quality High tolerance, smooth finish without additional processing Tolerances can be less precise, surface finish may require post-processing
Material Suitability for End Use Excellent, suitable for functional parts and final products Good for prototypes and non-functional parts, varies for end-use products

3D- Printing process

3D printing of plastic part


When to Use Injection Molding for Plastic Parts?

Injection molding is the preferred choice for certain production scenarios. Its unique capabilities make it the go-to method for projects where specific criteria like volume, cost, and precision are paramount.

High-Volume Production Needs

For manufacturing large quantities of parts, injection molding is unmatched. Its ability to produce a high volume of parts quickly and consistently makes it ideal for mass production. The initial setup costs are offset by the lower per-unit cost, providing significant cost savings in large-scale manufacturing. When it comes to producing thousands to millions of identical items, injection molding’s efficiency and speed are unparalleled, making it the best choice for high-volume requirements.

Consistency and Precision in Production

Injection molding is renowned for its ability to produce parts with high precision and uniformity. If your project requires components with tight tolerances and consistent quality, this method is the most suitable. The precision of injection molding ensures that each part is a replica of the last, essential in industries where uniformity is critical, such as in automotive and medical device manufacturing.

Complex Part Design and Detailing

When dealing with complex part designs or requiring intricate detailing, injection molding is often the superior choice. The process can handle complicated geometries and fine details that might be challenging or impossible for 3D printing. Injection molds can be engineered to produce complex shapes with high accuracy, making this method ideal for parts with detailed features or specific functional requirements.

Material Requirements and Durability

For projects that require parts to be made from specific materials or to possess certain physical properties, injection molding offers a range of options. It can utilize various plastics and composites, ensuring the final product has the desired strength, flexibility, or thermal resistance. This method is particularly relevant when producing parts that need to withstand mechanical stress or environmental factors.

Cost-Effectiveness for Large Orders

The cost-effectiveness of injection molding becomes apparent when producing large orders. Although the initial investment in mold design and machine setup is high, the per-unit cost drastically decreases as the production volume increases. 

Superior Surface Finish and Aesthetic Qualities

The Injection molding process yields parts with a superior surface finish, often requiring no further post-processing. It is crucial for consumer-facing products where appearance is as important as functionality. Products with a high-quality finish, color consistency, and texture can be achieved efficiently through injection molding, making it a preferred method in industries like consumer electronics and home appliances.

Injection molded custom part with superior finish


When to Use 3D Printing?

3D printing is an ideal solution for certain scenarios where its unique advantages over traditional methods like injection molding are most beneficial.

Rapid Prototyping and Design Flexibility

In the early stages of product development, 3D printing is invaluable. It allows for rapid prototyping, enabling designers to create, test, and refine their designs quickly and cost-effectively. 3D printing excels in facilitating a design-to-prototype process that is swift and efficient, making it the go-to choice for on-demand manufacturing,  and experimental designs.

Custom Part Production

3D printing shines when manufacturing custom or bespoke parts. Whether it’s for personalized medical devices, tailored automotive components, or unique architectural models, this method allows for a high degree of customization without the hefty costs associated with custom molds in injection molding. 

Complex Geometries and Intricate Designs

One of the most significant strengths of 3D printing is its ability to handle complex geometries and intricate designs that are challenging or impossible to achieve with injection molding. This capability opens up new possibilities in design freedom, allowing for the creation of structures with internal geometries, undercuts, and unorthodox shapes.

Small Batch Production and Limited Runs

3D printing is ideal for small batch production and limited runs. It offers a cost-effective alternative for projects where the quantity required does not justify the high costs of injection mold production. This is particularly advantageous for start-ups and small businesses that require limited product quantities. 

Reducing Material Waste and Sustainable Manufacturing

Sustainability is a growing concern in manufacturing, and 3D printing offers a more environmentally friendly option. It reduces material waste by using only the amount of material needed to build a part, unlike traditional methods that remove material to create a shape. 


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Comparing the Price of 3D Printing and Injection Molding

When it comes to manufacturing, selecting the right process is crucial, and cost is often a deciding factor. 3D printing and injection molding are two popular methods with distinct pricing structures. Understanding how these costs play out in real-world scenarios can help to make informed decisions.

Real-World Example: Manufacturing a Plastic Widget

Assuming the widget is a small, non-complex part suitable for both 3D printing and injection molding, we can break down the costs associated with each method.

3D Printing Cost Calculation

  • Material Cost: Assume the filament cost for one widget is $1.
  • Printer Setup: Minimal setup required, estimate $5 per batch for preparation and configuration.
  • Printing Time: If it takes 30 minutes to print one widget and the printer operates at $10/hour, the printing cost is $5.
  • Labor: Minimal labor is required for setup and removal, estimate $2 per widget.
  • Post-Processing: Some light post-processing might be needed, estimate $1 per widget.
  • Total Cost for One Widget: Adding these costs, the total for one 3D printed widget is approximately $14.

Injection Molding Cost Calculation

  • Material Cost: The resin for one widget might cost around $0.20.
  • Mold Cost: Assume a mold cost of $3000, a one-time investment.
  • Machine Setup: Setup cost estimated at $100 per batch.
  • Production Time: The cost rate for injection molding is $50/hour. If each widget takes 1 minute to mold, and 60 widgets are produced per hour, the cost per widget for production time is about $0.83.
  • Labor: Less labor-intensive, estimate $10 for the batch of 60 widgets, so around $0.17 per widget.
  • Total Cost for One Widget (First Batch): The total cost for one widget in the first batch, including the amortized mold cost, would be approximately $50.20.
  • Cost for Subsequent Batches: In later batches, excluding the mold cost, the cost per widget reduces significantly, potentially to as low as $1.20.

Let’s compile these calculations into a detailed table:

Table: 3D Printing Vs Injection Molding Cost 

Cost Component 3D Printing Injection Molding (First Batch) Injection Molding (Subsequent Batches)
Material Cost $1 (per widget) $0.20 (per widget) $0.20 (per widget)
Mold Cost Not Applicable $3000 (one-time, amortized over the batch) Not Applicable
Machine Setup $5 (per batch) $100 (per batch) $100 (per batch)
Printing/Production Time $5 (30 mins at $10/hour) $0.83 (1 min per widget at $50/hour) $0.83 (1 min per widget at $50/hour)
Labor $2 (per widget) $0.17 (per widget, for a batch of 60) $0.17 (per widget, for a batch of 60)
Post-Processing $1 (per widget) Not Applicable Not Applicable
Total Cost for One Widget $14 Approximately $50.20 Approximately $1.20

This table shows that 3D printing has lower upfront costs but higher per-unit costs, making it ideal for customized or low-volume manufacturing. Injection molding, on the other hand, requires a higher initial investment but becomes significantly more cost-effective for large-scale production.


3D Printing Vs Injection Molding in Applications

The choice between 3D printing and injection molding often hinges on their applications, each suited to different production needs. While 3D printing excels in customization and complex designs, injection molding is the go-to for high-volume, cost-efficient production. Let’s delve into their specific applications across various industries.

Table: Injection Molding Vs. 3D Printing in Various Applications 

Application Area 3D Printing Advantages Injection Molding Advantages
Prototyping Rapid design changes allow for testing multiple iterations quickly Efficient for final-stage prototypes mimicking the actual product
Custom Parts Ideal for bespoke items or tailored components with unique requirements Economical for large runs of custom parts but requires a mold for each design
Complex Designs Can create intricate details and complex geometries unachievable in other methods Limited by mold complexity, better for simpler designs
Small Batch Production Cost-effective for small quantities, no need for large initial investment Not economical due to high setup costs and mold expenses
Large Scale Production Less suited due to slower production rates and higher costs per unit Highly efficient, significantly lower cost per unit at large volumes
Medical Devices Suitable for customized medical implants and prosthetics Used for mass-produced medical items like syringes and vials
Aerospace Components Useful for lightweight, complex components Preferred for high-volume items like cabin components
Automotive Parts Limited to prototyping and specialty components Dominant for producing large quantities of standard parts
Consumer Goods Great for custom or limited edition items Ideal for mass production of items like toys and household goods
Educational/Research Facilitates learning and experimentation Not typically used due to high setup costs

Click here to download: Exploring the Differences: 3D Printing vs CNC Machining in Modern Manufacturing

The same part created from injection molding & 3D printing 


Injection Molding Services For Your Plastic Parts at Prolean

Prolean offers advanced injection molding services, tailored to meet the diverse needs of modern industries. Our focus on precision, efficiency, and quality ensures that your plastic parts meet the highest standards.

Leveraging advanced technology and extensive industry expertise, Prolean specializes in delivering customized injection molding solutions. We provide a seamless experience from design to production, ensuring that every client’s specific requirements with excellence. 

  • Custom Mold Design: Expert engineering for molds to meet complex specifications.
  • Material Selection Assistance: Guidance in choosing the right materials for durability and performance.
  • High-Volume Production Capacity: Capable of handling large-scale production runs efficiently.
  • Precision Manufacturing: State-of-the-art equipment for high-precision and consistent parts.
  • Quality Assurance: Rigorous testing and quality control measures.
  • Fast Turnaround Times: Efficient processes to meet tight deadlines.
  • Cost-Effective Solutions: Competitive pricing for both large and small batch production.
  • Eco-Friendly Practices: Focus on sustainable manufacturing processes.
  • Client-Centric Approach: Customized service to meet unique project requirements.
  • Technical Support: Comprehensive support throughout the production cycle.

Prolean’s injection molding services provide a reliable and efficient way to produce high-quality plastic parts, catering to various industries with a commitment to precision and client satisfaction.

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Summing Up

The choice between 3D printing and injection molding hinges on various factors, including production volume, design complexity, cost considerations, and intended application. 3D printing stands out for its exceptional flexibility, allowing for rapid prototyping, customization, and the creation of complex designs. It’s ideal for small batch production, particularly when unique or intricate parts are required. 

Conversely, injection molding excels in high-volume production scenarios, offering cost-effectiveness, high precision, and consistency for large-scale manufacturing. It’s the preferred method for producing uniform parts en masse, particularly where strength and durability are critical. So, in 3D printing Vs. injection molding,  each method has its distinct advantages, and the decision to use one over the other should be based on a thorough evaluation of the project requirements. 



Is it expensive to 3D print compared to injection molding?

3D printing can be costlier for individual units but doesn’t require expensive mold setups like injection molding.

Which method offers greater strength for custom parts?

Injection molding typically offers greater strength and durability for parts than 3D printing.

Can I use both 3D printing and injection molding for my project?

Yes, combining both methods can be beneficial for prototyping (3D printing) and mass production (injection molding).

What is the difference between plastic and 3D printing materials?

3D printing uses a wider range of materials, including plastics, resins, and metals, whereas injection molding predominantly uses plastics.

How does design complexity affect the choice between 3D printing and injection molding?

3D printing is better for complex designs, while injection molding suits simpler, high-volume production.

Are there any size limitations in 3D printing compared to injection molding?

3D printing has size limitations based on the printer size, whereas injection molding is suited for large-scale production.

1 Comment

  1. James r

    The insights into each method’s pros and cons are incredibly helpful for manufacturers deciding which technique to use for my project. Thank you!


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