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CNC VS 3D Printing

  • 5 min read

CNC Machining VS 3D Printing: How to Choose?

CNC (Computer Numerical Control) and 3D printing are two distinct manufacturing technologies known for their unique characteristics. CNC excels in its precision and versatility with various materials, while 3D printing stands out for its innovation and rapid prototyping capabilities. Although the two manufacturing methods are standard, their practical application varies based on the industry and specific projects. Therefore, this article will offer a comprehensive analysis of CNC vs 3D printing to help you understand which method is best for your needs and guide you to make the most suitable choice.

What Is CNC Machining?

CNC machining is a computerized manufacturing process that uses pre-programmed software and code to control machine tools. It often employs intricate machinery to cut, shape, and create robust components. Moreover, CNC is preferred for its high repeatability and precision at the sub-millimeter level. It is commonly applied to high-repeatable industries like healthcare, aerospace, automotive, electronics, and more.

Given the precision and exceptionally high technical demands of CNC, its strengths and weaknesses are quite evident. Here are the pros and cons of CNC:


  • High Precision:CNC ensures finely dimensioned products with minimal surface roughness.
  • Production Consistency:CNC machining achieves high consistency in process and production, reducing human errors.
  • Versatile Material Options:CNC can work with metals, plastics, wood, and more, making it widely used.
  • High Production Efficiency:CNC uses customized machining processes, ideal for small to medium-batch production.


What Is 3D Printing?

3D printing is an innovative manufacturing technology, sometimes referred to as "additive manufacturing." Similar to traditional manufacturing, it requires the use of CAD software for modeling. However, what sets it apart is the process of creating objects by layering materials. 3D printing can produce objects of various shapes and sizes, ranging from small toys to complex engineering components. Currently, 3D printing technology is rapidly changing manufacturing, healthcare, aerospace, and other industries.

These are the pros and cons of 3D printing:


  • High Customization:3D printing can produce intricate or highly personalized geometric structures to meet various needs.
  • Rapid Prototyping:3D printing takes less time to go from concept to a physical model.
  • Minimal Waste Production:3D printing reduces material waste due to its additive manufacturing nature.
  • Low Acquisition and Operating Costs:3D printers are cost-effective to purchase and require minimal setup and operational intervention.


CNC Machining vs. 3D Printing: What's the difference?

The main differences between CNC machining vs 3D printing lie in workflow, material variations, geometry, waste, and speed considerations. Keep reading for a more in-depth comparison of these two manufacturing methods.

Common Workflow

Both CNC and 3D printing start by designing models using CAD software and generating G-codes to define machine operations. However, during production, CNC employs machines like lathes, mills, and grinders to cut materials to shape the final product. In contrast, 3D printing uses a nozzle to stack material layer by layer, each precisely positioned following digital instructions, allowing for the creation of more complex geometric shapes.

Material Differences

The material processing of 3D printing vs CNC is greatly different. CNC machining works with various materials like metals, plastics, and wood, acrylics, machining wax, offering a wide range of material choices. However, 3D printing has relatively limited material options, often suitable for plastics, resins, metal powders, and more, contingent upon the type of 3D printer in use.

Geometry and Precision

CNC machining can produce relatively complex geometric shapes, including curves, angles, and internal structures, but it falls short of creating original or highly personalized shapes. However, CNC machining achieves ultra-high precision, reaching sub-millimeter levels, making it suitable for aerospace and medical.

By contrast, 3D printing has minimal geometric constraints as long as the model and codes are supported by the 3D printer. The general accuracy of 3D printers ranges from 0.1 millimeters to 0.2 millimeters. It's worth noting that industrial-grade 3D printers can achieve even higher precision, reportedly as low as 0.01 millimeters.

 Waste Material

CNC machining and 3D printing fall under subtractive and additive manufacturing respectively, leading to distinct differences in waste production during manufacturing. CNC machining needs to cut away excess material, so it will generate a volume of waste that may be hard to recycle. Conversely, 3D printing builds objects by adding material layer by layer with pre-defined material usage, resulting in relatively minimal waste generation.

The preparation for CNC machining involves workpiece clamping, tool changes, and program coding. These preparation steps can take a considerable amount of time. However, once completed, CNC machining can operate at a high speed. This makes it well-suited for mass production and precision manufacturing.

3D printing preparation is relatively simple, mainly embracing modeling and printer setup. However, the actual printing process might not be as quick as expected due to printer size and the need for sequential printing. Thus, 3D printing is more suitable for prototyping and personalized customization.

Tips for Choosing CNC or 3D Printing

Choosing between CNC machining and 3D printing depends on the specific requirements. Here are some tips to help you decide:

  1. Project Demands:

Consider the complexity of the object structure and its geometric shape. CNC machining offers superior precision and overall quality. However, if you require customized products, 3D printing is a perfect match.

  1. Material Selection:

Select your manufacturing method based on the materials required for your project. CNC machining offers a wider selection of materials, including metals, plastics, wood, acrylics, and more. In contrast, 3D printing's material options may be more limited and dependent on the specific printer's compatibility, typically suitable for plastics, resins, metal powders, and other materials, varying by the type of 3D printer you're using.

  1. Build Volume:

If you need to produce large quantities of identical parts, CNC machining might be more cost-effective. For small-batch or custom production, 3D printing is often the better choice as it can quickly adjust the designs.

  1. Cost Evaluation:

Take your budget into account. CNC machining invests more in the first place, whereas 3D printing is more budget-friendly for small-scale prototyping.

  1. Equipment and Expertise:

Ensure you have the appropriate equipment and skills for your chosen manufacturing method. CNC machining often requires specialized machinery and skilled operators. But 3D printing is user-friendly.

After comparing 3D printing vs CNC machining, if you lean towards choosing 3D printing, you shouldn't miss the AnkerMake M5 3D Printer and AnkerMake M5C 3D Printer. These two machines not only offer 0.1-millimeter printing to ensure precision but also feature a metal body and a stable H-type structure to increase the printing size and reduce vibrations. Besides, the AnkerMake M5 3D Printer and AnkerMake M5C 3D Printer fully support modeling software like AnkerMake Slicer, Prusa, Cura, and more, providing a one-stop solution for your modeling needs.


In this exploration of CNC vs 3D Printing, we have provided explanations for CNC machining and 3D printing, compared them, and offered tips on how to choose between the two. In practice, these suggestions and explanations should be tailored to your specific situation. Hope that this article is helpful to you.


Is it possible for 3D printing to replace CNC machining?

3D printing and CNC machining often find applications in different industries. Despite the rapid growth of 3D printing, CNC machining remains a mature and efficient technology. They are not necessarily interchangeable methods. Therefore, it is unlikely that 3D printing will replace CNC machining. Instead, 3D printing and CNC machining are possible to coexist and complement each other.

How can CNC machining and 3D printing be integrated for optimal results in manufacturing?

To achieve the best results, you can use CNC machining to produce durable and precise components. Subsequently, 3D printing can be employed to create the required parts for these components. This collaborative approach optimizes both precision and efficiency, making it an ideal solution for a wide range of manufacturing needs.

Is CNC more affordable than 3D printing?

Whether CNC machining is more cost-effective than 3D printing depends on the project size, complexity, material requirements, and available equipment. CNC machining is better suited for large-scale production. On the other hand, 3D printing is more economical for small-scale production and complex or custom designs. Evaluating your project's needs is crucial in determining which manufacturing method aligns with your budget.