Posted on February 17, 2022

CNC Machining vs 3D Printing: Cost and Results Comparisons

3D printers printing

For customized fabrication of metal projects, there are two clear winners in the manufacturing process: CNC Machining and 3D printing. In any debate, however, there can be only one winner. See which one is the better choice for your large-scale project, and why. Let’s take a look at a head-to-head comparison.

What is CNC Machining?

Computer numerical control, or CNC, is a process using special computerized machinery to customize and shape materials like metal, plastic, composite, foam, or wood. It starts with creating a 2D vector or 3D solid part CAD design that allows manufacturers to produce customized objects. This design is then exported to a file format compatible with the CNC machinery. In turn, computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software translates the files to extract the specifics and create a digital programming code. This code is what controls the machinery, or CNC router, and allows it to produce the customized parts. 

These machines can perform many functions, but the three most common are: 

  • CNC Drilling: Produces cylindrical holes in the parts
  • CNC Milling: Removes material using multi-point cutting tools
  • CNC Turning: Removes materials using a single-point cutting tool

In CNC machining, metal fabrication is the result of removing materials from the items.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, creates three-dimensional products from a digital 3D model or a CAD model. It involves adding thin layers of material consecutively on top of each other to create finished objects, using a digital blueprint.

The four main types of processes in 3D printing are:

  • Digital Laser Projection
  • Stereolithography
  • Filament deposition modeling
  • Polyjet

Finished 3D printing projects are the result of adding materials to an item.

CNC Machining vs 3D Printing: Which is Better?

Since both processes create 3D products using computer aided software, it can be difficult to determine which one is preferable. Here’s a look at the benefits of both.

Benefits of CNC Machining

The CNC router is a good choice for mass producing projects. It can create larger products quickly and efficiently. It’s also a better choice for accuracy, detail, and precision, and allows the use of metals, creating a stronger finished product.

Benefits of 3D Printing

For limited uses, such as creating a single prototype, 3D printing is a good option. It’s better suited for smaller, less detailed projects than larger or highly complex designs. While it allows the use of a variety of materials, these materials may be harder to find and more expensive than those used in CNC machining. There will be less waste with a 3D printer, however, since the process depends on adding materials rather than removing them.

Head to Head Comparison

Still on the fence? Here’s a snapshot comparison.

  • CNC machines can be customized for a full range of projects, from small to oversized. 
  • CNC projects are more affordable, and use readily available materials.
  • 3D printers can produce an entire finished product while CNC machining will need to manufacture each part individually.
  • 3D processes will frequently require sanding or polishing of each finished component.
  • CNC machinery can tackle larger or more complex projects faster.
  • 3D printing may provide faster results for a single, one-off project such as a prototype.
  • CNC machines can produce more detailed and precise products
  • 3D printers don’t have the same level of repeatability that CNC machinery does.

Still not sure which process is best for your project? Contact EDCO Fabrication for a free, no obligation consultation, and let us help you choose.