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CNC Machining or 3D Printing: Which should you use?

CNC machining and 3D printing are two of the most popular manufacturing technologies for available today. Whether you need component parts for your latest project or works of art to brighten up your home or office both technologies have advantages and disadvantages that could sway you to choosing one or the other of them. If you need to create something how do you know which technology would serve you best?

CNC Machining and 3D printing: What's the difference?

While both technologies can produce a perfectly produced finished product they approach the product creation from opposite directions. CNC machining starts with a solid block of aluminium, wood or other material and applies cutting and shaping tools to the block until the final product emerges from the block. By contrast, 3D printing starts from nothing and applies material layer by layer to create the final three-dimensional product.

Which materials can be used?

Often it is the choice of material that will determine which technology is used to create your product. 3D printers are typically restricted to thermoplastics and resins while CNC machining can work with a far wider range of products including metals, woods, and acrylic. If you know what physical properties you need from your product you probably know how it will be made.

How much precision do you need?

If you are making a component which needs to be very precisely created then you will need to determine the capabilities of the manufacturers equipment. 3D printers frequently promise very high levels of precision, in some cases up to 0.02mm, although in practice most currently available printers have a resolution of 0.025mm. With CNC machining you can expect a positioning accuracy of 0.025mm and a tolerance of 0.0127mm. In all cases, you should discuss your requirements with your chosen manufacturer to ensure that their equipment is capable of delivering your product exactly as you need it.

How fast do you need it?

Speed is one area where CNC machining usually has the edge over 3D printing. Some 3D printing jobs can take hours to complete, while a comparable job undertaken using CNC machining can be completed in less than an hour.

3D printing and CNC machining both have their place in the manufacturing world, if you are uncertain which process is most appropriate for your needs you should discuss your requirements with your chosen manufacturer who will be able to advise on the best solution for your product.