Home 9 3D Printing 9 CNC Machining Vs 3D Printing: An In-Depth Comparison

CNC Machining Vs 3D Printing: An In-Depth Comparison

Author: YiNuo Zhang
Published on: 2023-07-06

CNC machining is a traditional yet powerful manufacturing method that uses the subtractive process, whereas 3D printing, a relatively newer technology, uses an additive process. Subtractive processes, such as CNC machining, begin with a solid block of material and gradually remove unwanted parts until the final product is created. Additive processes, such as 3D printing, start with nothing and add material layer by layer until the final product is built. To determine which method best suits your needs, it is crucial to understand these fundamental differences, as well as the advantages, drawbacks, and cost-effectiveness associated with each approach.

This article will compare CNC machining and 3D printing to help you make an informed decision.

Related Resource: 3D Printing vs CNC Machining in Modern Manufacturing


Understanding CNC Machining

Plastic CNC machining

Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining is a manufacturing process in which pre-programmed computer software dictates the movement of factory tools and machinery. The process is subtractive, meaning it involves material removal. CNC machining can control complex machinery such as grinders, mills, lathes, and routers. The technology can be used to control a range of complex machinery, from grinders and mills to lathes and routers.

Key Elements of CNC Machining:

  • Design: The process starts with a CAD model. Once the design is finalized, it’s converted into a CNC program that serves as instructions for the machine.
  • Setup: The CNC machine is set up with the appropriate tools and materials. This process varies depending on the machine and the part being manufactured.
  • Execution: The CNC program is executed, and the machine creates the part by removing material from the workpiece.
  • Quality Check: The part is inspected for accuracy and quality. Any necessary finishing processes are also completed.

Table 1: Advantages and Disadvantages of CNC Machining

Advantages Disadvantages
High precision and accuracy High initial setup costs
Ability to produce complex parts Waste generation due to the subtractive method
Scalable for large-volume production Requires experienced operators for setup
Can work with a wide range of materials Not ideal for extremely intricate designs


Grasping 3D Printing

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process that creates a physical object from a digital design by adding material layer by layer. The technology has opened new doors in manufacturing because of its ability to create complex structures, rapid prototyping, and customization.

Key Steps in 3D Printing:

  • Design: Similar to CNC machining, 3D printing starts with a digital design in a CAD model. The design is then converted into a format that a 3D printer can understand.
  • Preparation: The 3D printer is prepared by selecting the appropriate material and setting the print parameters.
  • Printing: The 3D printer builds the part layer by layer. This can take a few hours to several days, depending on the complexity and size of the part.
  • Post-processing: After printing, the part often requires some post-processing, like removal from the build platform, support removal, or surface finish improvements.

Table: Advantages and Disadvantages of 3D Printing

Advantages Disadvantages
Can create highly complex structures Limited material selection
Ideal for prototyping and customization May lack precision compared to CNC machining
Less waste compared to subtractive methods Printing speed may be slower for large volumes
Lower setup costs for small batches Post-processing may be required


Comparing the Capabilities: CNC Machining vs 3D Printing

Choosing between CNC machining and 3D printing often boils down to the specific needs of the project. Both processes have distinct advantages and lend themselves to different applications.

1. Material Compatibility:

CNC machining can work with a wide range of materials, including metals, plastics, and wood, thus offering more variety than 3D printing. Although 3D printing technologies have improved significantly, they are typically used with specific plastics, resins, and select metals.

2. Precision and Accuracy:

CNC machining is renowned for its precision. It can produce parts with tight tolerances and excellent surface finish, outperforming 3D printing in this respect. Although 3D printing technologies are evolving, achieving the level of precision and surface finish provided by CNC can be a challenge.

3. Complexity and Design Freedom:

3D printing excels in building complex, intricate designs that would be impossible with CNC machining. This advantage makes it ideal for prototypes, intricate jewelry, and customized parts.

4. Volume:

For high-volume production, CNC machining typically offers more cost-effectiveness due to its speed and ability to use inexpensive raw materials. In contrast, 3D printing may be more economical for small runs or single items.

5. Speed:

Although the speed of production depends on many factors, CNC machining can generally complete projects more quickly than 3D printing, particularly for larger volumes. However, for prototyping or production of single units, 3D printing may be faster due to less setup time.

Table: Capabilities of CNC Machining vs 3D Printing

Factors CNC Machining 3D Printing
Material Compatibility Wide range, including metal, plastic, and wood Primarily plastic and resin, some metals
Precision and Accuracy High Depends on technology; generally lower than CNC
Complexity and Design Freedom Limited by tool access High, with capability for intricate structures
Volume Ideal for large volumes Best for small volumes or single items
Speed Fast for high volumes, slower for single items Fast for single items or prototypes, slower for high volumes

Having discussed the comparative capabilities of both CNC machining and 3D printing, it’s clear that the choice between the two depends heavily on the specifics of the project at hand. Be it the volume, complexity, precision, material, or time-to-market, every aspect should be carefully considered.


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Incorporating CNC and 3D Printing for Best Results

There’s no need to see CNC machining and 3D printing as opposing forces. In fact, they can work in synergy, with each process utilized for its specific advantages in the production cycle.

1. Prototyping and Final Production

During the prototyping stage, 3D printing can be an excellent tool for the quick creation of sample parts and checking the fit, form, and function. The possibility of making complex geometries and quick adjustments to the design without the need for additional tooling is a significant advantage.

Once the prototype is perfected, CNC machining can then take over for the final production, especially if it involves large quantities. Given its precision, it is highly suitable for making end-use parts.

2. Creating Hybrid Parts

In some cases, 3D printing and CNC machining can be used to create a single part. The part can be 3D printed first, with CNC machining employed afterward to achieve higher precision and a better surface finish.

Table: Using CNC and 3D Printing Together

Stage CNC Machining 3D Printing
Prototyping Used for making precision prototypes when necessary. Ideal for the rapid creation of prototypes and design iterations.
Final Production Perfect for producing large quantities of final parts. Used for small runs of customized parts or when complex geometries are required.
Hybrid Parts Used to enhance the precision and finish of 3D printed parts. Used to create the initial structure of the part.


Making an Informed Decision

Deciding between CNC machining and 3D printing isn’t a matter of determining which is superior. Instead, it’s about understanding the strengths and limitations of each method and how they can serve a specific project’s requirements. Both have their place in manufacturing, and a combination of the two can often yield the best results.

Prolean’s CNC Machining Services are committed to providing expert insights and quality production, ensuring that you make the best possible decision for your manufacturing projects.



1. Is CNC machining better than 3D printing?

Neither is inherently better than the other. Each has its strengths and is better suited to different types of jobs. The choice between them depends on several factors, including the material, quantity, complexity of the part, and budget.

2. Can 3D printing and CNC machining be used together?

Yes, both techniques can be used in conjunction, particularly for creating complex parts that require the strengths of both methods. For example, a part can be 3D printed initially and then finished off with CNC machining for enhanced precision.

3. Which is faster: CNC machining or 3D printing?

The speed can depend on the project. For single items or prototypes, 3D printing can be faster due to less setup time. However, for larger volumes, CNC machining is generally quicker.

4. Which method offers a wider range of material options?

CNC machining offers a wider range of materials, including various metals, plastics, and wood. 3D printing is often limited to specific plastics, resins, and a few types of metal. As part of Prolean’s commitment to the manufacturing industry, we provide both CNC.


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