10 Steps to Choose Between 3D Printing and CNC Machining

Choosing the right manufacturing method for your project can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. By following these 10 steps, you can make an informed decision that is straightforward and easy to understand. This guide will highlight the essential steps to determine whether 3D printing or CNC machining is the best fit for your project, breaking down the unique advantages and limitations of each technology. Let’s simplify the process and make your choice clear and simple.

China 3D Printing Services

Step 1: Define Your Project Requirements

When beginning a new manufacturing project, it’s crucial to clearly define your project requirements. This involves understanding the complexity and design of the parts needed, as well as the required precision and tolerances. The choice between 3D printing and CNC machining will significantly impact the project’s success, especially when considering the unique demands of different industries.

Key Considerations:

Complexity and Design:

  • 3D Printing and CNC Machining: Both methods are capable of producing complex structures. 3D printing excels at creating intricate geometries and internal features such as cavities and lattice structures. CNC machining, while traditionally known for simpler, precise geometries, has advanced to produce complex parts with multi-axis machines.

Precision and Tolerance:

  • 3D Printing: Generally offers moderate tolerances, suitable for prototypes and functional parts where ultra-high precision is not critical. Post-processing can improve surface finish and dimensional accuracy.
  • CNC Machining: Provides higher precision and tighter tolerances compared to 3D printing, making it ideal for applications where parts must meet strict quality standards and performance criteria.


Aspect 3D Printing CNC Machining Explanation
Complexity Excels at complex, intricate designs Capable of producing complex structures Both methods can create internal features and complex geometries, depending on the equipment and techniques used.
Precision Moderate, improved with post-processing High, consistent precision 3D printing offers good precision for prototypes; CNC machining provides superior accuracy for critical components.
Industry Examples Medical (custom prosthetics), Consumer Electronics Aerospace (turbine blades), Automotive (engine parts) Different industries benefit from the strengths of each method based on their specific needs.

Industry-Specific Applications:

Industry 3D Printing CNC Machining
Medical Industry Ideal for custom prosthetics, implants, and surgical guides that require complex shapes and patient-specific designs. Quick and cost-effective. Used for surgical instruments and medical devices that demand high precision and biocompatible materials.
Aerospace Industry Suitable for creating lightweight components with complex geometries, such as brackets and air ducts, which help reduce the overall weight of aircraft. Critical for manufacturing high-precision parts like turbine blades and structural components that must withstand extreme conditions.
Automotive Industry Useful for rapid prototyping of car parts, custom fixtures, and low-volume production of specialized components. Essential for producing high-precision engine components, transmission parts, and other critical elements requiring tight tolerances.
Consumer Electronics Enables rapid prototyping and iterative design, allowing for quick testing and modification of product designs. Used for creating durable and precise parts such as housings, connectors, and internal components that must fit together perfectly.

Filament-based 3D printing

Step 2: Evaluate Material Requirements

here’s a table listing materials typically used exclusively in 3D printing and CNC machining:

Material 3D Printing CNC Machining
Polycarbonate (PC)
Stainless Steel
Carbon Fiber
Standard Resin
Tough Resin
Flexible Resin
High-Temperature Resin
Tool Steel
Mild Steel


  • 3D Printing: Offers flexibility with materials like PLA, ABS, nylon, and specialized resins. Metals like aluminum, titanium, and stainless steel can also be used but are limited compared to CNC machining.
  • CNC Machining: Capable of working with a broader range of metals and engineering-grade plastics, offering superior strength and durability.

This table should help in making a clear distinction between materials suited for 3D printing and CNC machining, aiding in your decision-making process.

here’s a table showing materials that can be processed using both 3D printing and CNC machining:

Material 3D Printing CNC Machining
Nylon (PA)
Polycarbonate (PC)
Stainless Steel
Carbon Fiber


  • ABS: Used in both 3D printing and CNC machining for its toughness and impact resistance.
  • Nylon (PA): Preferred in both methods for its strength and good sliding properties.
  • Polycarbonate (PC): Chosen for high impact resistance and transparency, available in both 3D printing and CNC.
  • PEEK: High-performance plastic used in both processes for its excellent mechanical and thermal properties.
  • Aluminum: Commonly used in both methods due to its lightweight and machinability.
  • Titanium: Used for high-strength, lightweight applications in both 3D printing and CNC.
  • Stainless Steel: Chosen for its corrosion resistance and strength, available in both methods.
  • Carbon Fiber: Used in both processes, often in composite forms, for its high strength-to-weight ratio.

    CNC milling services

Step 3: Analyze Production Volume and Cost

I made a table to guide readers on the most suitable manufacturing method based on production quantity:

Production Quantity Recommended Method Explanation
1-10 3D Printing Ideal for prototyping and small batch production.
11-50 3D Printing or CNC Machining Both methods are cost-effective; choice depends on part complexity and material.
51-100 CNC Machining CNC becomes more economical for larger volumes due to lower per-unit costs.
101-500 CNC Machining CNC machining offers consistent quality and efficiency for medium production runs.
500+ CNC Machining Best for high-volume production with lower marginal costs and high precision.


  • 1-10 Units: 3D printing is highly efficient for low-volume production due to minimal setup costs and the ability to produce complex geometries quickly.
  • 11-50 Units: Depending on the complexity of the part and the material, both 3D printing and CNC machining can be viable options. 3D printing is preferable for complex designs, while CNC machining is better for parts needing higher strength and precision.
  • 51-100 Units: CNC machining becomes more cost-effective as the setup costs are distributed over a larger number of units, providing consistent quality.
  • 101-500 Units: CNC machining is recommended for its efficiency and ability to maintain tight tolerances across medium production runs.
  • 500+ Units: CNC machining is the preferred method for high-volume production due to its cost efficiency and capability to produce parts with high precision and repeatability.

Marine Grade Aluminum CNC Machining

Step 4: Assess Speed and Turnaround Time

Key Considerations:

  • Prototyping Speed: If you need rapid prototypes, 3D printing can often produce parts faster due to minimal setup time and the ability to iterate quickly.
  • Production Efficiency: For mass production, CNC machining generally offers faster turnaround times once the setup is complete, especially for parts requiring high precision and repeatability.


Prototyping Speed

Method Setup Time Production Time per Part Typical Turnaround Time
3D Printing Minimal (1-2 hours) 1-10 hours depending on complexity 1-2 days for small batches (1-10 units)
CNC Machining Moderate (1-2 days) 0.5-2 hours per part 2-5 days for small batches (1-10 units)

Production Efficiency

Method Setup Time Production Time per Part Typical Turnaround Time
3D Printing Minimal (1-2 hours) 1-10 hours depending on complexity 5-10 days for medium batches (50-100 units)
CNC Machining Moderate (1-2 days) 0.5-2 hours per part 3-7 days for medium batches (50-100 units)


  • 3D Printing:
    • Prototyping Speed: Ideal for rapid prototyping with turnaround times as short as 1-2 days due to minimal setup and quick iteration capabilities.
    • Production Efficiency: Suitable for low to medium volumes. As batch sizes increase, the production time per part and total turnaround time also increase.
  • CNC Machining:
    • Prototyping Speed: Requires more setup time (1-2 days), but once set up, each part can be produced in a relatively short amount of time (0.5-2 hours per part). Turnaround for small batches is typically 2-5 days.
    • Production Efficiency: Highly efficient for medium to high volumes. Once the initial setup is complete, CNC machining can produce parts quickly and consistently. For medium batches, typical turnaround times range from 3-7 days, depending on part complexity and volume.

Advanced Prototype Techniques

Step 5: Consider Surface Finish and Post-Processing

When choosing between 3D printing and CNC machining, it’s important to consider the post-processing options available for each method to achieve the desired surface finish and functional properties.

Post-Processing Options

Post-Processing Technique 3D Printing CNC Machining Both
Heat Treatment
Powder Coating
Vapor Smoothing
Media Blasting
Chemical Smoothing
Thread Tapping
Machining Post-Processing
Surface Grinding


  • 3D Printing:
    • Sanding: Used to smooth surfaces and remove layer lines.
    • Polishing: Achieves a high-gloss finish.
    • Painting: Adds color and protective coating.
    • Electroplating: Applies a metal coating for enhanced properties.
    • Powder Coating: Adds a durable, colored finish.
    • Vapor Smoothing: Smooths surface by exposing it to solvent vapors.
    • Media Blasting: Cleans and textures the surface using abrasive media.
    • Chemical Smoothing: Uses chemicals to smooth surfaces, commonly for ABS.
    • Machining Post-Processing: Involves CNC machining for added precision and finish.
  • CNC Machining:
    • Anodizing: Enhances corrosion resistance and adds color to aluminum parts.
    • Heat Treatment: Alters the mechanical properties of metals.
    • Deburring: Removes sharp edges and burrs.
    • Thread Tapping: Adds threaded holes.
    • Surface Grinding: Achieves high-precision flat surfaces.
    • Machining Post-Processing: Additional CNC machining for finer details and surface finish.
    • Plating: Applies a coating to enhance properties.
    • Brushing: Creates a brushed metal finish.
  • Both:
    • Sanding, Polishing, Painting, Electroplating, Powder Coating, Media Blasting, Deburring, Thread Tapping, Machining Post-Processing, Plating, Brushing: These processes can be applied to parts produced by either 3D printing or CNC machining to enhance surface finish and functional properties.

Rapid Prototyping Industry

Step 6: Evaluate Durability and Strength Requirements

When choosing between 3D printing and CNC machining, it’s important to consider the material properties and the mechanical demands of the part. Here’s a table that shows which materials are best suited for 3D printing, CNC machining, or both, based on their characteristics and the capabilities of each manufacturing method.

Material 3D Printing CNC Machining Both Key Considerations
PLA Biodegradable, suitable for prototypes
ABS Strong, impact-resistant, good for functional parts
Nylon (PA) Wear-resistant, good for mechanical parts
Polycarbonate (PC) High impact resistance, clear
PEEK High strength and temperature resistance
PETG Durable, flexible, used in 3D printing
TPU Flexible, used for flexible parts in 3D printing
Aluminum Lightweight, corrosion-resistant
Titanium High strength-to-weight ratio
Stainless Steel Corrosion-resistant, durable
Inconel High temperature and corrosion resistance
Brass Excellent machinability
Copper High thermal and electrical conductivity
Tool Steel Hard, wear-resistant, used for cutting tools
Mild Steel Versatile, used in structural applications
Carbon Fiber High strength-to-weight ratio, used in both methods
Fiberglass Lightweight, strong, used in 3D printing
Standard Resin Used for detailed, smooth parts in 3D printing
Tough Resin Higher strength and durability in 3D printing
Flexible Resin Flexible parts in 3D printing
High-Temperature Resin Used for heat-resistant parts in 3D printing
Ceramics Used for high-temperature applications in 3D printing
Wood Used in 3D printing for aesthetic and prototype parts


  • 3D Printing:
    • Suitable for rapid prototyping, complex geometries, and parts with moderate strength requirements.
    • Common materials include PLA, ABS, nylon, polycarbonate, and resins.
    • Ideal for applications where flexibility in design and quick iterations are important.
  • CNC Machining:
    • Preferred for high-strength, durable, and load-bearing applications due to superior mechanical properties.
    • Capable of machining a wide range of metals and high-performance plastics.
    • Provides excellent precision and surface finish, making it suitable for parts that need to withstand high stress or temperature.
  • Both:
    • Some materials like ABS, nylon, polycarbonate, and aluminum can be used in both 3D printing and CNC machining, offering flexibility based on the specific needs of the project.

Functional Prototype Manufacturing

Step 7: Consider Environmental Impact and Sustainability

Key Considerations:

  • Material Waste: Evaluate the amount of material waste produced by each method. 3D printing tends to generate less waste as it only uses material where needed, whereas CNC machining is a subtractive process that generates significant waste.
  • Energy Consumption: Consider the energy efficiency of each process. Some 3D printing technologies can be more energy-efficient than CNC machining, especially for small-scale production.


  • 3D Printing: Lower material waste and potentially lower energy consumption for small-scale production.
  • CNC Machining: Higher material waste but can be optimized for energy efficiency in large-scale production.

Step 8: Assess Customization and Flexibility

When evaluating the customization and flexibility of 3D printing and CNC machining, it’s important to consider the associated costs and the ease of making design changes. Here’s a table that outlines the key considerations and compares the costs and customization capabilities of both methods.

Key Considerations:

  • Customization Needs: Determine the level of customization required for your parts.
  • Design Iterations: Evaluate the need for frequent design changes.


Aspect 3D Printing CNC Machining Explanation
Setup Costs Low High 3D printing has minimal setup costs; CNC requires expensive tooling.
Material Costs Moderate to High Moderate Material costs for 3D printing can vary; CNC material costs are generally stable.
Customization High Moderate 3D printing excels in producing unique, customized parts.
Design Iteration Costs Low High 3D printing allows easy and low-cost design changes; CNC requires new tooling for changes.
Production Volume Low to Medium Medium to High 3D printing is cost-effective for low to medium volumes; CNC is better for higher volumes.
Turnaround Time Short for small batches Short for large batches 3D printing can quickly produce small batches; CNC is faster for large volumes after setup.
Per Part Cost High for high volumes Low for high volumes Per part cost decreases with CNC machining as volume increases.
Complexity of Design High Moderate 3D printing can produce complex geometries that CNC cannot.


  • 3D Printing:
    • Customization Needs: Ideal for producing highly customized, unique parts. It’s suitable for environments where designs are frequently iterated, as it allows for quick modifications without the need for new tooling.
    • Design Iterations: Low cost and minimal setup time make it perfect for prototypes and short runs with frequent design changes.
    • Cost Efficiency: Best for low to medium production volumes. Setup costs are low, but material costs can be higher.
  • CNC Machining:
    • Customization Needs: Better suited for standardized parts with consistent designs. Once the setup is complete, CNC machining can produce parts with high precision and repeatability.
    • Design Iterations: Higher costs and longer times for design changes due to the need for new tooling and setups.
    • Cost Efficiency: More economical for high-volume production. Although the initial setup costs are high, the per-part cost decreases significantly with higher production volumes.

Rapid Prototyping Services Step 9: Consider Scalability and Future Needs

When planning a project, designers and product developers must consider the potential for scaling up production and the adaptability of the manufacturing method to future needs. This involves assessing how well 3D printing and CNC machining can handle increased production demands and adapt to technological advancements.

Key Considerations:

Scalability: Assess the potential need for scaling up production in the future. CNC machining can easily scale to meet high-volume production demands.

Adaptability: Evaluate how adaptable the manufacturing method is to future technological advancements and changes in production requirements.


3D Printing


  • Small to Medium-Scale Production: 3D printing is excellent for small to medium-scale production, particularly in the prototyping phase and for customized, low-volume products.
  • Growing Potential: As 3D printing technology advances, its scalability is improving, making it more viable for larger production runs. Innovations in multi-jet fusion and metal 3D printing are expanding its capabilities.


  • Flexibility: 3D printing offers high adaptability to design changes, allowing for rapid iterations and modifications without significant additional costs.
  • Technological Advancements: The field of 3D printing is rapidly evolving, with new materials and faster printing techniques continuously being developed. This makes 3D printing highly adaptable to future needs and technological progress.

CNC Machining


  • Large-Scale Production: CNC machining is highly scalable for large-scale production. Once the initial setup and tooling are complete, CNC machines can produce high volumes of parts with consistent quality and precision.
  • Established Infrastructure: CNC machining benefits from a well-established infrastructure and widespread availability, making it a reliable choice for high-volume manufacturing.


  • Precision and Consistency: CNC machining excels in producing parts with high precision and consistency, essential for industries requiring stringent quality standards.
  • Technological Integration: CNC machines are increasingly integrated with advanced technologies such as automation, robotics, and IoT, enhancing their adaptability to changing production requirements and improving efficiency.

Table: Scalability and Future Needs

Aspect 3D Printing CNC Machining Explanation
Scalability Small to Medium Scale Large Scale 3D printing is ideal for low to medium volumes; CNC excels at high volumes.
Initial Setup Cost Low to Moderate High 3D printing requires minimal setup; CNC has higher initial setup costs.
Production Speed Slower for large volumes Faster for large volumes 3D printing can be slower as volume increases; CNC machining is efficient for large runs.
Customization High Moderate 3D printing allows easy customization; CNC is better for standardized parts.
Design Changes Easy and Low Cost Difficult and High Cost 3D printing allows quick changes; CNC requires new tooling and setup for changes.
Adaptability Highly adaptable to new tech Integrates advanced tech 3D printing is evolving rapidly; CNC integrates automation and robotics.
Material Variety Expanding but limited Extensive 3D printing material range is growing; CNC has a wide variety of materials.

Step 10: Evaluate Assembly Requirements

When developing new products, it’s essential to consider the assembly requirements and how they influence the choice between 3D printing and CNC machining. Here’s a detailed discussion on how product developers can assess these requirements to select the most appropriate manufacturing process.

Key Considerations:

Assembly Complexity: Determine the complexity of assembling the parts. Some parts may require precise fits and multiple components that need to align perfectly during assembly.

Tolerance and Fit: Evaluate the tolerance levels needed for the parts to fit together seamlessly. High-precision parts may demand tighter tolerances, influencing the choice of manufacturing method.

Ease of Integration: Consider how easily the manufactured parts can be integrated into the final product. This includes evaluating the need for additional machining, post-processing, or adjustments during assembly.


3D Printing

Assembly Complexity:

  • Customization: 3D printing allows for the creation of complex geometries and integrated components, which can reduce the number of parts that need to be assembled.
  • Interlocking Parts: The ability to print interlocking parts directly can simplify assembly processes and reduce assembly time.

Tolerance and Fit:

  • Moderate Tolerances: 3D printing typically offers moderate tolerances. Post-processing may be needed to achieve the desired fit and finish.
  • Prototyping Stage: Ideal for creating prototypes to test fit and function before mass production.

Ease of Integration:

  • Direct Integration: Parts can often be integrated directly into the final product with minimal additional processing.
  • Material Considerations: Some 3D printed materials may require additional treatment to enhance their strength and durability for final assembly.

CNC Machining

Assembly Complexity:

  • Precision Machining: CNC machining is excellent for producing high-precision parts that require tight fits and alignments, critical for complex assemblies.
  • Separate Components: Typically involves producing separate components that are then assembled, which can be advantageous for certain designs.

Tolerance and Fit:

  • High Precision: CNC machining offers very tight tolerances, ensuring parts fit together perfectly, which is crucial for high-performance applications.
  • Repeatability: Provides consistent quality across large production runs, ensuring uniformity in assembly.

Ease of Integration:

  • Post-Machining Adjustments: Parts often come off the machine ready for assembly, reducing the need for additional adjustments.
  • Material Versatility: Wide range of materials ensures that the parts meet the required specifications for the final product.

Table: Assembly Requirements Comparison

Aspect 3D Printing CNC Machining Explanation
Assembly Complexity Simplifies by reducing part count Suitable for producing separate parts 3D printing can produce integrated parts; CNC is ideal for precise components.
Tolerance and Fit Moderate, requires post-processing High, precise and consistent 3D printing needs additional work for tight fits; CNC offers inherent precision.
Ease of Integration Direct integration with minimal processing Ready for assembly, minimal adjustments 3D printed parts may need extra treatment; CNC parts are often assembly-ready.

Rapid prototyping techniques


Making the right choice between 3D printing and CNC machining involves carefully considering your project’s specific requirements across various aspects. By evaluating complexity and design, material needs, production volume and cost, speed and turnaround time, surface finish, durability, environmental impact, customization, scalability, and post-processing requirements, you can determine which technology is best suited for your needs.

For intricate designs and rapid prototyping, 3D printing is often the better choice. However, for high-precision, durable parts in large quantities, CNC machining is typically more efficient and cost-effective.

If you still have questions or need further assistance, feel free to contact us for personalized advice tailored to your project’s unique needs.

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