How to Choose 3D Printing vs. CNC Machining Services

In today’s fast-paced manufacturing landscape, rapid prototyping and small-batch production have become essential for businesses to stay competitive. Two of the most popular technologies used for these purposes are 3D printing and CNC machining. While both methods can create high-quality parts and prototypes, they differ in their processes, materials, and applications. This article will provide an in-depth comparison of 3D printing services and CNC machining, helping you make an informed decision when choosing the best technology for your project.

3D Printing & CNC Machining

3D printing and CNC machining are two distinct manufacturing processes that have revolutionized the way we create parts and products.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, builds objects layer by layer using materials like plastics, metals, and ceramics. This process is ideal for creating complex geometries, customized parts, and rapid prototypes, offering a high degree of design freedom and the ability to produce intricate internal structures that would be impossible or cost-prohibitive with traditional manufacturing methods.Read more about rapid prototyping.
Comparison between 3D printing and CNC machining

CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining is a subtractive manufacturing process that uses computerized controls and cutting tools to remove material from a solid block, creating the desired shape or design. CNC machines can work with a wide range of materials, including metals, plastics, and composites, and are known for their precision, accuracy, and ability to create parts with tight tolerances and smooth surface finishes. The most common CNC machining techniques include milling, turning, and drilling.

Compare 3D Printing and CNC Machining


3D printing offers a wide range of materials, from common thermoplastics like ABS and PLA to high-performance polymers such as PEEK and Ultem. Metals like stainless steel, titanium, and aluminum can also be 3D printed using techniques like Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) or Electron Beam Melting (EBM). Ceramics and biocompatible materials are available for specialized applications in industries such as healthcare and aerospace.

In contrast, CNC machining primarily works with metals, plastics, and composites commonly used in traditional manufacturing. While CNC machining may have fewer material options, it can produce parts with higher strength, stiffness, and temperature resistance, making it suitable for demanding applications like automotive and aerospace components.

Complexity and Design Freedom

3D printing offers unmatched design freedom, allowing for the creation of complex geometries that would be impossible or cost-prohibitive with CNC machining. With 3D printing, designers can create intricate internal channels, lattice structures, and organic shapes without worrying about tool access or machining constraints. This makes 3D printing ideal for applications like lightweight aerospace components, customized medical implants, and complex heat exchangers.

CNC machining, although capable of producing complex shapes, may struggle with deep cavities, undercuts, or internal features that are difficult to access with cutting tools. However, CNC machining excels at creating precise, high-tolerance parts with tight dimensional accuracy, often achieving tolerances of ±0.025 mm or better, compared to the typical ±0.1 mm for most 3D printing processes.

Industrial 3D printing equipment

Speed and Lead Time

For prototyping and small-batch production, 3D printing is often faster than CNC machining. Once a 3D model is designed, it can be sent directly to a 3D printer for production without the need for toolpath programming, fixture design, or tool selection. This can significantly reduce lead times, allowing for rapid iteration and design validation.

In contrast, CNC machining may require the creation of custom fixtures, tooling, and NC programs, which can take several days or weeks depending on the complexity of the part. However, for larger production runs, CNC machining can outpace 3D printing once the setup is complete, as it can produce parts faster and more consistently. For example, a CNC machine can typically produce a simple aluminum part in a matter of minutes, while a 3D printer may take several hours to build the same part layer by layer.


The cost of 3D printing and CNC machining can vary widely depending on factors like part complexity, material selection, and production volume. For small quantities and complex designs, 3D printing is often more cost-effective, as it requires no upfront tooling investment and can produce parts with minimal material waste. A complex, low-volume prototype may cost a few hundred dollars to 3D print, while CNC machining the same part could cost thousands due to the need for custom fixturing and tooling. However, as production volumes increase, CNC machining becomes more economical, especially for simpler designs. The cost per part for CNC machining decreases significantly with higher volumes, as the initial setup costs are amortized over a larger number of parts.To further improve cost-effectiveness and efficiency, understanding build volume optimization tips can greatly enhance 3D printing processes, ensuring you get the most out of your 3D printing setup. It’s important to consider the entire lifecycle cost, including post-processing, assembly, and maintenance, when comparing the costs of 3D printing and CNC machining for a given application.
3D Printing Smoothing Tips

Surface Finish and Post-Processing

CNC machining inherently produces parts with smooth, high-quality surface finishes, often requiring minimal post-processing. A well-designed CNC machining process can achieve surface roughness values of 0.8 μm Ra or better, suitable for most engineering applications. 3D printed parts, however, often have visible layer lines, stair-stepping, or surface roughness that may require additional post-processing. The surface quality of 3D printed parts can vary widely depending on the printing technology, material, and process parameters used. For example, FDM parts may have pronounced layer lines and a rough surface texture, while SLA or MJF parts can achieve smoother finishes. Post-processing techniques like sanding, tumbling, or vapor smoothing can improve the surface finish of 3D printed parts, but these additional steps can add significant time and cost to the production process.

Scalability and Production Volume

CNC machining is well-suited for larger production volumes and can easily scale up to meet increasing demand. With CNC machining, multiple parts can be produced simultaneously using multi-axis machines or automated pallet systems, enabling high-volume production with consistent quality. Many CNC machine shops have extensive capabilities and can handle production runs of thousands or even millions of parts. 3D printing, while ideal for prototyping and low-volume production, has traditionally been less efficient for high-volume manufacturing due to slower build speeds and limited build volumes. However, recent advancements in 3D printing technologies, such as high-speed sintering and multi-jet fusion, are improving the scalability of additive manufacturing. These technologies can produce parts faster and more efficiently than traditional 3D printing methods, making them viable options for larger production runs. As 3D printing continues to evolve, it is likely to become increasingly competitive with CNC machining for certain high-volume applications.More information on the best online 3D printing services.

Choose the Right Technology for Your Project

When deciding between 3D printing and CNC machining services, consider the following things for reference:

  • If your design features intricate internal geometries, organic shapes, or complex structures that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional manufacturing methods, 3D printing may be the better choice, as it offers unparalleled design freedom.
  • If your application demands high strength, stiffness, temperature resistance, or specific material properties like electrical conductivity or chemical resistance, CNC machining may be more suitable, as it can work with a wide range of engineering-grade materials.
  • If you need quick prototypes or small batches to validate your design or test market acceptance, 3D printing is often faster, as it requires no tooling or setup, allowing for rapid iterations and shorter lead times.
  • If you require larger production volumes or consistent, repeatable parts, CNC machining is typically more efficient and cost-effective, as it can produce parts faster and more consistently once the initial setup is complete.
  • If you have a limited budget and need small quantities or complex designs, then 3D printing by our excellent 3D printing service provider is highly cost-effective. It does away with the necessity for pricey tooling and can fabricate parts with the least amount of material waste.
  • If you have larger volumes and simpler designs, CNC machining becomes more economical, as the cost per part decreases significantly with higher quantities, and the initial setup costs are spread across a larger number of parts.
  • If you require smooth, high-quality surface finishes with tight tolerances and minimal post-processing, CNC machining is the better option, as it inherently produces parts with superior surface quality and dimensional accuracy.
  • If you can tolerate visible layer lines, stair-stepping, or some degree of surface roughness, and are willing to invest in additional post-processing steps like sanding, polishing, or vapor smoothing, 3D printing may be suitable for your application.

In some cases, using both technologies in combination may yield the best results. For example, you could 3D print a prototype to validate the form, fit, and function of your design, and then use CNC machining to produce the final production parts with the desired material properties and surface finish. Consider your project’s unique requirements carefully to make an informed decision that balances performance, cost, and lead time.