What are the Differences in 3D Printing and CNC Machining?

In today's manufacturing landscape, comparing 3D Printing and CNC machining is crucial. Both technologies drive innovation but in distinct ways. 3D Printing offers rapid prototyping and intricate designs, transforming how industries approach creation. CNC machining brings precision and strength, ideal for large-scale, durable outputs.

What will you learn?

This guide sheds light on each method's advantages, applications, and material usage. It compares their precision, speed, and costs, equipping you with insights for informed decision-making. Understanding these differences is key to optimizing your manufacturing process and ensuring the highest project quality.

1. 3D Printing vs. CNC Machining: Understanding the Basics:

Understanding the differences in 3D printing and CNC machining is important to choose the right manufacturing method for your project. Both methods are considered as the basis in modern fabrication.

  • 3D printing layers materials to form objects, allowing intricate designs and rapid prototype creation. This additive method varies in techniques, materials, and costs, positioning itself as a versatile choice for custom manufacturing.
  • In contrast, CNC machining precisely carves materials into desired shapes through a subtractive approach. It excels in precision and can work with an extensive range of materials, including stabilized rubbers. Its main ability is to produce high-quality components with high accuracy for rigorous use in many industries.

The discussed technologies provide advantages that are typically different and have separate applications from prototype to full-scale manufacturing. However, choosing between 3D Printing and CNC machining represents several aspects that should be taken into account, such as actual precision safety requirements, level of material production or usage ability, and overall cost efficiency. This study will give you a deeper understanding and ability to select the method that suits your desired manufacturing.

Difference between machining and 3D printing

2. Comparing 3D Printing and CNC Machining:

Let’s understand the differences in 3D printing and CNC machining by comparing both methods:

Basic Principles and Techniques:

  1. 3D Printing Techniques:

3D Printing and CNC machining revolutionize the way we form parts, each with different principles and techniques. In 3D Printing, 3D structures manufacture via accumulated layers. This additive approach contradicts with subtractive nature of CNC, many times resulting into less wastage of material. Some of the mainstream methods developed over the years include, selective laser sintering (SLS), fused deposition modeling (FDM), and stereolithography (SLA).

  1. CNC Machining Techniques:

CNC machining, guided by computer numerical code, varies in its techniques. Milling employs a rotary tool to shape materials, offering precision but requiring skilled operation. Turning shapes materials with stationary tools is ideal for mass production but is typically limited to cylindrical forms. Grinding refines surfaces without a tool, achieving high-quality finishes but at a slower pace. Drilling is straightforward and economical, yet its simplicity can limit versatility.

Material Usage 3D Printing vs. CNC Machining:

3D Printing embraces various materials fostering versatility in aerospace and consumer goods applications. Commonly recommended materials include:

  • Plastics: ABS, PLA, Nylon, PC, PP, PETG, etc.
  • Composites: Carbon Fiber Filled, Fiber Glass, Metal Filled, etc.
  • Metals: Cobalt, Titanium, Nickel, etc.

CNC machining, on the other hand, primarily employs metals alongside a broad range of plastics and composites. Some commonly used CNC machined materials include:

  • Metals: Aluminum, Copper, Brass, Titanium, Stainless Steel, etc.
  • Plastics: ABS, PC, PP, Nylon, HDPE, etc.
  • Composites: Carbon fiber, Fiber glass, fiber-reinforced polymers, etc.

Each technology leverages its material spectrum, presenting unique advantages and cost implications in custom manufacturing solutions.

Precision in Manufacturing: 3D Printing and CNC Machining

  • In precision, CNC machining typically outperforms 3D printing. CNC parts often meet stricter tolerances, which is crucial in high-precision industries.
  • While 3D Printing offers flexibility and speed, its precision can lag, especially as increased accuracy may lead to longer production times.

Balancing precision with efficiency remains key in choosing between these manufacturing solutions.

Cost Comparison: 3D Printing vs. CNC Machining:

  • CNC machining materials often cost less; the method involves skilled labour for programming and setup, adding to the total expense. This process is suitable for mass-production from 100 – 1000 parts.
  • In contrast, 3D Printing has higher material costs but can be more streamlined. It is most suited for low volume production from 10 – 100 parts.

This cost comparison between 3D Printing and CNC machining hinges on these trade-offs, influencing the choice based on project specifics and scale.

Comparison Table:



3D Printing

CNC Machining

Basic Principles and Techniques

Utilizes layers to build 3D structures through additive methods. Includes SLS, melting, and SLA techniques.

Shapes materials via subtractive methods. Methods include CNC milling, turning, etc.

Material Usage

Offers a broad spectrum, from plastics to metals, suitable for diverse applications.

Primarily uses metals like steel and aluminium and softer materials like acrylic.

Precision in Manufacturing

It provides flexibility and speed but can lack precision, especially when higher accuracy extends production time.

Typically delivers higher precision, meeting stricter tolerances essential in high-precision industries.

Cost Implications

Higher material costs but benefits from the streamlined operation and reduced labour input.

Lower material costs but require skilled labour for programming and setup, increasing overall expense.

3D printing vs CNC Machining

3. Understanding the Advantages and Limitations:


1.   3D Printing Technology:

Let’s discuss the advantages and drawbacks of 3D printing process:

Advantages of 3D Printing Technology:

3D printing technology reshapes manufacturing with several standout advantages.

  • It excels in flexible design, enabling rapid prototyping and quick transition from design to production. This technology allows for crafting intricate and complex designs with traditional methods, often challenging or impossible.
  • Additionally, it supports the creation of lighter parts, which is crucial in industries like aerospace, where weight is a premium factor.
  • 3D Printing is often more cost-effective and environmentally friendly, reducing material waste and energy consumption. These benefits position 3D Printing as a key player in custom manufacturing solutions, contrasting with the capabilities and applications of CNC machining.


Despite its advancements, 3D printing technology faces certain limitations.

  • The range of materials and the size of builds it can accommodate remain constrained, often restricting the scope of applications. This process is also not quite suitable for mass production as it is comparatively less time-efficient than traditional manufacturing processes.
  • Additionally, 3D-printed parts frequently require post-processing steps, including cleaning, curing, or additional machining, adding to the total production time.

2.   CNC Machining:


Benefits of CNC Machining:

CNC machining is known by its precision and durability which make it the best choice for high-stakes industries.

  • Its capability to handle high-volume production efficiently makes it ideal for large-scale operations. High repeatability allows for stable quality performance across the same units- a critical consideration in manufacturing.
  • Moreover, CNC machining's versatility with a wide range of materials, from metals to plastics, offers flexibility in application.

These benefits underscore CNC machining's pivotal role in precision manufacturing, contrasting the capabilities and applications of 3D printing technology.



  • CNC machining, while precise, faces certain constraints. Initial costs can be high, and complex designs often encounter limitations due to the subtractive nature of the process.
  • Material wastage is a significant concern, as excess material gets removed and unused. Though infrequent, operational errors can lead to costly downtime and require substantial maintenance efforts.

These limitations highlight the importance of careful planning and execution in CNC machining projects, especially when contrasting with the more material-efficient and design-flexible 3D printing technology.

3D printing vs CNC Machining

4. 3D Printing vs. CNC Machining: Practical Applications:

    I.      3D Printing Applications:

3D printed parts are used in various sectors such as:

  • Healthcare leverages 3D printing for personalized prosthetics, dental solutions, and surgical guides.
  • Aerospace utilizes the technology for prototyping and manufacturing, meeting strict industry standards.
  • Automotive and Electronics sector, especially in racing, uses 3D printing for rapid prototyping and on-demand spare parts. Electronics benefit from 3D printing's speed and design flexibility, driving innovation.
  • Robotics employs 3D printing for lightweight, custom parts, enhancing efficiency and payload capacity.

3D printing's adaptability across these diverse fields underlines its potential to reshape industries, making it a pivotal technology in modern manufacturing.

   II.      CNC Machining in Industry:

CNC machining is referred to as the backbone that supports the industrial world and suits several sectors with utmost precision and versatility.

  • The aerospace industry relies on CNC for parts that demand the utmost precision and durability.
  • In the automotive sector, it crafts everything from simple components to complex engine parts, ensuring reliability and performance.
  • The marine industry benefits from CNC's ability to work with materials that withstand harsh oceanic conditions.
  • In electronics, where precision is non-negotiable, CNC machining meticulously creates components for devices like smartphones.
  • It's also pivotal in manufacturing parts that meet stringent standards in the military and defence
  • The healthcare industry utilizes CNC to create accurate and reliable medical devices.
  • Lastly, the energy sector depends on CNC-machined components for sustainable and efficient production.
Machined Parts Manufacturer | Precision CNC Machining

5. Choosing the Right Manufacturing Method for Your Needs:

Navigating the terrain of manufacturing methods demands a nuanced understanding of several critical elements to ensure your project's unique requirements are met.

1.   Material Considerations:

A crucial element in your decision-making process involves evaluating material options. 3D Printing is a strong contender for intricate parts requiring plastics, resins, or composites. It's particularly advantageous for bespoke or complex items. Conversely, CNC machining offers a broader spectrum of metals and tougher materials, delivering resilience and robustness.

2. Part Size and Complexity:

3D printing shines when creating intricate, complex designs, especially for smaller parts. Its layer-by-layer approach allows for more design freedom. CNC machining, however, is more suitable for larger parts and materials that require high strength, where the precision and power of the machine can handle bulk materials and simpler, more traditional designs efficiently.

3.   Pace and Quantity in Production:

In low-volume production and swift prototyping, 3D printing takes centre stage, significantly curtailing the journey from conception to realization. While the diligent, subtractive process of CNC machining may be more laborious, its supremacy is unchallenged in high-volume production scenarios, where consistency and meticulous precision are the cornerstones.

4.   Accuracy and Aesthetic Finish:

CNC machining's acclaim is well-earned in precision and exquisite surface finish, making it the preferred ensemble for components necessitating stringent tolerances and sleek exteriors. Although 3D printing has made commendable advancements in precision, it occasionally necessitates additional refinement to achieve a surface finish that holds a candle to its CNC counterpart.

5.   Rapid Prototyping Dynamics:

When the clock is ticking and swiftness is of the essence, 3D printing is the unparalleled choice for rapid prototyping. This technique empowers designers to undergo a rapid cycle of testing and enhancement, significantly abbreviating the timeline compared to more conventional manufacturing methods.

Difference between machining and 3D printing

6. Conclusion:

In wrapping up, discerning the differences in 3D printing and CNC machining is important. 3D printing excels in design flexibility and swift prototyping. It reshapes how industries approach manufacturing. CNC machining, in contrast, offers precision and strength, ideal for bulk production and durable parts.

Your choice should weigh material needs, design detail, production scale, and precision levels. Each technology has its strengths, tailored to specific project demands. Rally Precision excels in both manufacturing techniques. With more than 15 years of experience, we know which method if best suited for your project. So whether you are looking for CNC machining services for custom machined parts or innovative 3D printing services to bring your complex idea to life – Rally should be your choice.

Connect with our expert and get your product manufactured with high precision and accuracy.

7. Frequently Asked Questions:

1.   Is 3D Printing replacing CNC Machining?

While 3D Printing advances rapidly, it's not poised to replace CNC machining fully. Both have distinct advantages and applications. CNC machining remains deeply entrenched and highly efficient in numerous industries. Its precision and capacity for large-scale production keep it indispensable. The future likely holds a landscape where both technologies coexist, each playing to its strengths in the manufacturing process. This synergy optimizes output quality and efficiency, showcasing the unique value of each method.

2.   When is 3D Printing a viable alternative to CNC machining?

3D Printing becomes a viable alternative when material removal in CNC machining is high, meaning the part volume to stock volume ratio is low. It's also preferable for smaller parts. For instance, items that fit in your hand can often be printed within 5 – 6 hours. This makes 3D Printing a strong candidate for projects requiring rapid turnaround and where material conservation is a priority. Its efficiency for smaller, intricate designs often makes it the go-to choice in such scenarios.

3.   What are the material considerations for CNC machining and 3D Printing?

CNC machining accommodates various materials, including metals, plastics, and composites. The choice largely depends on customer needs, balancing part requirements with cost-effectiveness. For 3D Printing, material options range from plastics to specialized metals. Selecting the right material involves considering the part's intended use, required durability, and the desired precision, ensuring the final product meets all specifications effectively and efficiently.

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