Skip to content

The Difference Between 3d Printing And Cnc Machining

Discover the surprising differences between 3D printing and CNC machining and which one is right for your project.

3D printing and CNC machining are two of the most popular methods for manufacturing products today. While both techniques offer advantages, there are some significant differences between them. Understanding these differences is essential for choosing the right method for your production needs.

3D printing is a process that builds objects layer by layer using a computer-generated design. It is ideal for creating complex shapes and designs that would be impossible to make with traditional manufacturing methods.

On the other hand, CNC machining uses computer-controlled machines to cut and shape materials into precise shapes and sizes. This method is perfect for producing parts with high accuracy and consistency, making it ideal for industrial applications.

In this article, we will explore the difference between 3D printing and CNC machining in more detail, looking at their strengths and weaknesses in terms of cost, speed, quality, and flexibility.


  1. Understanding 3d Printing
  2. Exploring Cnc Machining
  3. Strengths And Weaknesses Of 3d Printing
  4. Strengths And Weaknesses Of Cnc Machining
  5. Choosing The Right Method For Your Production Needs
  6. Frequently Asked Questions
  7. Conclusion

Understanding 3d Printing

3D printing is a popular technology that has become increasingly accessible in recent years. It involves creating three-dimensional objects by layering materials on top of each other, usually using a digital model as a guide.

The materials used in 3D printing can vary widely depending on the intended application, but some common options include plastic, metal, and even food.

One of the most exciting things about 3D printing is its versatility. It can be used to create everything from simple prototypes to complex medical devices. For example, doctors have used 3D printing to create custom prosthetic limbs for their patients, while engineers have used it to produce intricate parts for machines and vehicles.

Despite its many benefits, 3D printing does have some limitations. For example, it can be slower than other manufacturing methods, and the quality of the final product may not always be as high. However, with continued advancements in technology and materials science, these issues are likely to become less significant over time.

Exploring Cnc Machining

Now that we’ve covered the basics of 3D printing, let’s take a closer look at CNC machining.

While both are types of additive manufacturing, CNC machining differs from 3D printing in a few key ways.

Firstly, instead of adding layers of material, CNC machines use precision machining techniques to remove excess material until the desired shape is achieved.

This makes it ideal for producing complex parts with extremely tight tolerances that might be difficult or impossible to achieve with a 3D printer.

Another major advantage of CNC machining is its ability to work with a wide variety of materials, including metals, plastics, and composites.

This makes it an essential tool in industries such as aerospace and automotive engineering where strength and durability are critical.

In short, while 3D printing has its advantages in terms of speed and flexibility, CNC machining remains the go-to choice when precision and versatility are required.

As technology continues to advance in both fields, it will be exciting to see how these two methods of additive manufacturing evolve and complement each other in the years ahead.

Strengths And Weaknesses Of 3d Printing

As with any manufacturing process, 3D printing has its strengths and weaknesses.

One of its greatest strengths is the potential for customization. With 3D printing, it is possible to create highly complex designs that would be difficult or impossible to produce with traditional manufacturing techniques. This makes it ideal for prototyping and small-scale production runs.

Another advantage of 3D printing is that it allows for rapid iteration. Because parts can be produced quickly and inexpensively, designers can experiment with different designs and make changes on the fly. This means that the design process can be much more agile than with traditional manufacturing methods.

However, there are also some material limitations when it comes to 3D printing. While there are a wide variety of materials available for use in 3D printers, not all materials are suitable for all applications. For example, while plastic is a common material used in 3D printing, it may not be strong enough for certain applications. Additionally, some materials may not be compatible with certain types of printers.

Despite these limitations, there are still many potential applications for 3D printing. As technology continues to improve and new materials become available, we can expect to see even more innovative uses of this technology in the future. From aerospace parts to medical implants, the possibilities are endless.

Strengths And Weaknesses Of Cnc Machining

Undoubtedly, CNC machining is one of the most popular manufacturing techniques. It has been around for decades and has proven to be a reliable choice when it comes to producing complex parts with high precision. However, as with any other manufacturing process, CNC machining has its strengths and weaknesses.

One of the biggest advantages of CNC machining is its ability to produce parts with exceptional precision. The machines can work with tolerances as low as 0.001 mm, making them ideal for industries that require high levels of accuracy such as aerospace and medical.

Additionally, CNC machines can operate at incredibly high speeds, which means they can produce parts in large quantities quickly.

On the flip side, CNC machining does have some limitations. For instance, it may not be able to work with certain materials due to their toughness or elasticity. Furthermore, achieving a smooth surface finish on some materials can be challenging using this method.

These limitations are important considerations when selecting a manufacturing process for a specific project.

In summary, while CNC machining offers unparalleled precision and speed in manufacturing complex parts quickly and accurately, there are also material limitations and challenges in achieving surface finish quality that must be taken into account during the design process.

Choosing The Right Method For Your Production Needs

Imagine you have a project in mind that requires either 3D printing or CNC machining. How do you decide which method is the best fit for your production needs? One consideration is cost versus precision. While 3D printing can be more affordable, it may not always provide the same level of accuracy as CNC machining.

Another important factor to consider is material options. With 3D printing, you are limited to certain materials such as plastics, whereas CNC machining can work with a wider range of materials including metals and composites. Depending on the requirements of your project, this could be a deciding factor in choosing between the two methods.

To help visualize the differences between 3D printing and CNC machining, consider the following table:

Factor 3D Printing CNC Machining
Cost per Unit Low High
Precision Moderate to Low High
Material Options Limited (primarily plastics) Wide Range (including metals and composites)

Ultimately, the decision comes down to weighing these factors against your specific production needs. If cost is a primary concern and high precision isn’t necessary, then 3D printing may be the way to go. However, if you require a greater range of material options and more precise results, CNC machining may be worth the investment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can 3d Printers Use Multiple Materials At Once?

Multi material 3D printing offers a range of advantages and limitations.

The ability to use multiple materials at once allows for more complex and intricate designs, as well as the creation of objects with varying properties in different areas.

However, this type of printing can also be more challenging and expensive compared to single material printing.

When comparing material options for 3D printing and CNC machining, it’s important to note that while 3D printing offers a wider range of materials, CNC machining can achieve higher precision and strength with certain materials.

Ultimately, the choice between these two methods depends on the specific requirements and goals of the project.

What Is The Maximum Size Of Object That Can Be Produced Using Cnc Machining?

When it comes to CNC machining, one of the limitations is the size of the object that can be produced. Unlike 3D printing, which can create objects layer by layer and build up intricate details, CNC machining relies on cutting away material from a larger block.

This means that while CNC machines can produce highly detailed parts, they may not be suitable for creating large-scale objects. However, there are still many applications for large scale CNC machining, such as in aerospace or automotive industries where precision and strength are crucial factors.

Overall, the size vs. detail tradeoff is an important consideration when deciding between 3D printing and CNC machining.

Can 3d Printers Create Objects With Moving Parts?

Yes, 3D printers can create objects with moving parts. This is one of the advantages of 3D printing for prototyping as it allows designers to quickly test and iterate their designs.

However, there are limitations of 3D printing for functional parts as the materials used may not be durable enough or have the necessary mechanical properties for long-term use. It is important to consider the intended use of the part when deciding between 3D printing and other manufacturing methods.

What Is The Level Of Precision That Can Be Achieved With Cnc Machining?

CNC machining precision is often considered superior to that of 3D printing, as it can achieve extremely tight tolerances and intricate details with ease.

This level of precision is due to the process of subtractive manufacturing, where material is removed from a solid block until the desired shape is achieved.

Additionally, CNC machining can work with a wide range of materials, including metals and plastics, whereas 3D printing material compatibility is more limited.

Overall, CNC machining offers a high degree of accuracy and versatility in manufacturing processes.

Is It Possible To Combine 3d Printing And Cnc Machining In The Same Production Process?

Combining 3D printing and CNC machining in the same production process can offer several benefits and limitations. The integration of these two processes can provide greater efficiency, as they complement each other in terms of speed, precision, and complexity.

While 3D printing is best suited for producing complex shapes quickly, CNC machining offers greater accuracy and surface finish. Integrating both processes can result in a hybrid manufacturing approach that allows for the production of intricate designs with high dimensional accuracy.

However, this combination also has its limitations, such as increased cost and longer production time. Overall, integrating 3D printing and CNC machining can provide several benefits but requires careful consideration of the trade-offs to achieve an optimal production process.


In conclusion, the main difference between 3D printing and CNC machining is the way they create objects.

While 3D printers build objects layer by layer using a variety of materials, CNC machines carve out objects from a block of material using precise cutting tools.

Both methods have their strengths and weaknesses, with 3D printing being ideal for complex shapes and prototypes while CNC machining excels in producing high-precision parts.

However, it is possible to combine both methods in the same production process to benefit from the advantages of each technique.

Ultimately, choosing between 3D printing and CNC machining depends on the specific needs of each project and the desired outcome.