CNC Machining VS 3D Printing | How to Choose?

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Shivangi Gupta
Shivangi Gupta
Shivangi adds great value to the team with her prompt and well-researched insight. Her unprecedented love for literature is reflected well enough in her writings. She takes you on a tour to a world apart with the visual imagery in her content that urges the readers to ponder. To get the brain juices flowing, she makes sure to have a brewing cup of coffee next to her all day.

CNC machining and 3D printing are two very different methods of prototyping and manufacturing parts and are best suited to different projects, depending on the part being made and your personal preferences as an engineer or maker. 

By reading this article, you’ll understand how each method works, what limitations they have, and how they can be applied to your unique project. Before we get into the specifics of CNC machining VS 3D printing, let’s take a look at why anyone would want to use one method over the other in the first place.

Decide What You Want to Prototype

CNC machining and 3D printing both have their benefits when it comes to prototyping. If you need a high-precision part for testing purposes or if your idea is complicated and you want something with a lot of details, CNC machining will be your best bet. This type of prototyping service can create complex shapes that are normally hard to achieve on a small scale.

On the other hand, if you want to test out a physical model of your product, but not necessarily its form factor (like smooth corners), then 3D printing is probably better suited for your needs. The main benefit here is that it’s quicker and cheaper than CNC machining; in addition, 3D printing doesn’t require as much preparation time as traditional prototyping methods like CNC.

Decide if You Need Metal or Plastic

CNC machining

There are distinct differences between CNC machining and 3D printing when it comes to creating prototype parts. A solid understanding of how each process works will help keep costs down and ensure that both processes meet all of your needs. 

Understanding what you’ll be making is key to picking out a method for producing prototypes and small batches of manufactured goods. The capabilities of these two fabrication methods cannot be ignored when choosing which type of part should serve as your base design—and having such direct insight into how products are built gives companies competitive advantages every day. 

No matter which fabrication technique a company chooses, though, one thing is certain: 3D printing and CNC machining have redefined how manufacturers approach prototyping.

Think About What Material Will Help You Accomplish Your Goals

The next step is to think about what material will help you accomplish your goals. Do you need a strong object that can handle lots of wear and tear, or do you need something lighter and more flexible? CNC machining could be right for your project if durability is an important factor. 

With that said, 3D printing materials have been advancing quickly and they’re getting stronger all the time. In either case, both methods are viable options for making prototypes of your ideas. One might just suit your specific needs better than another depending on what you’re trying to create. 

You don’t want to spend too much on prototyping materials because it can be hard to recoup those costs later, but if you get creative with recycling and sourcing inexpensive parts, there are plenty of ways to keep costs low while still creating an effective prototype.

Identify the Level of Precision and Detail You Need

CNC machining

One of your main considerations in choosing between CNC machining and 3D printing is going to be precision and detail. CNC machining enables a higher level of precision than printing; it’s typically measured by microns (thousandths of a millimeter), while 3D printers work in terms of layers—each new layer built on top of previous ones. 

The lower a printer goes, however, the less accurate its final product will likely be; so you should consider what level of detail you need and how important that is for your business or project before you decide which fabrication method works best for you. This can help narrow down your search for an appropriate shop or service provider. 

For example, if you were building molds for small-batch plastic manufacturing, it might make sense to invest in 3D printing because accuracy isn’t a big concern—or if you needed prototype plastic parts but didn’t have time to wait days or weeks until they came back from outsourcing vendors, prototyping locally with a printer might also be an excellent choice.

Consider Speed, Quality, and Cost-Effectiveness

Though both CNC machining and 3D printing are fantastic prototyping methods that can be used for manufacturing a wide range of parts, they each have their advantages and disadvantages. 

If you’re looking for speed and cost-effectiveness, CNC machining may be best for your business; if you’re looking for customizability, learn more about how a low-volume production run through 3D printing might work for you. 

For example, with 3D printing: Your part will be printed within hours (not days) You’ll have access to a much wider variety of materials, colors, and finishes than you would with CNC You’ll enjoy total control over design. 

Each one of these points is an important consideration when choosing between 3D printing and CNC prototyping service. Further down in this post we delve into more detail on these considerations and then make our choice clear as to which method comes out on top.

Understand Material Properties

There are several different types of material available in 3D printing. The most popular and common materials are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). This is important to know because CNC machining uses materials like steel and aluminum which have different properties than plastics. 

Depending on your design you may need to convert it so that it can be used with a particular type of machinery. Doing so will ensure that it’s going to come out exactly how you wanted it to without any flaws. While there are some limitations, both 3D printing and CNC machining have their benefits and drawbacks. Let’s take a look at each one individually.

There are two primary differences between CNC machining and 3D printing: size and flexibility. If an item needs to be larger than you want or require more complex details then CNC is probably better suited for what you are trying to achieve. 

On the other hand, if an item needs to be very small or simple then 3D printing would probably work best for what you need. Take the time upfront to consider what kind of projects you’ll likely use your machine for; only after considering all possible scenarios should we choose a production method or service provider.

Conclusion – Which Method is Best?

CNC machining is a precision manufacturing method that uses computer numerical control (CNC) to machine parts from metal or plastic. 3D printing, on the other hand, involves the creation of a three-dimensional object by depositing material layer by layer. Both methods are effective in their own way and can be used for different applications. 

The decision of which method to use depends on your project and personal preference. We have created this blog post to help you understand how each method works, what limitations they have, and how they can be applied to your unique project. Which one do you think will work best for your project? Let us know in the comments below!

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