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3D Printing vs CNC Service: How to Choose the Right Manufacturing Method

Blog  /  3D Printing vs CNC Service: How to Choose the Right Manufacturing Method

3D Printing vs CNC Service: How to Choose the Right Manufacturing Method

Mar 20,2024

3D printing and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) service are two popular manufacturing methods that have gained widespread attention in recent years. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, involves building 3D objects layer by layer from a digital model, while CNC service, also known as subtractive manufacturing, involves cutting away material from a solid block to create a desired shape. Both methods offer unique capabilities and advantages, and understanding their key characteristics is essential for choosing the right manufacturing method for your specific needs. In this article, we will compare 3D printing and CNC service, exploring their applications, limitations, and considerations to help you make an informed decision for your manufacturing projects. Whether you're a prototyping customer, product designer, or business owner, read on to learn how to choose between 3D printing and CNC service for your manufacturing needs.

Precision and Accuracy

When it comes to precision and accuracy, CNC generally offers higher levels of accuracy compared to 3D printing. CNC machines are capable of achieving extremely tightest tolerances, ±0.05mm or ±0.1mm.

The tightest tolerance only represents that certain features/areas of the current part are manufactured with this precision, and it does not imply that all features/areas are processed according to this standard. If there are specific dimensional accuracy requirements, please upload the annotated 2D drawings simultaneously. If no tolerance grade is indicated, it will be executed according to the "m" grade of ISO 2768 standards.

On the other hand, 3D printing typically has slightly lower accuracy than CNC machining, with typical accuracy ranging from ±0.2mm or 0.3% to ±0.3mm or 0.4%.The accuracy of 3D printing varies depending on the technology, material, and printer settings used. While 3D printing offers excellent design freedom and it is capable of producing complex geometries, CNC may be a better choice for applications that require the highest level of precision and accuracy, especially for parts with tight tolerances or critical dimensions.

ProcessToleranceMinimum wall thicknessMaximum Build Size
   CNC    ±0.05-0.1mm0.5mm(Plastics),0.8mm (Metals)                        1000mm*800mm*550 mm
   SLA    ±0.2mm or 0.3%                 0.8mm                         780mm*780mm*530mm
   FDM    ±0.3mm or 0.4%                 1.0mm                         580mm*480mm*480mm
   SLM    ±0.3mm or 0.4%                 1.5mm                         390mm*290mm*390mm
   MJF    ±0.3mm or 0.4%                 1.0mm                         370mm*276mm*360mm
   SLS    ±0.3mm or 0.4%                 1.0mm                         350mm*350mm*400mm

Material Versatility

For Material Versatility, CNC generally offers a wider range of options compared to 3D printing. CNC machines can work with a vast array of materials, including metals, plastics, composites, wood, and more. CNC machines are not limited to specific materials and can process a wide variety of stock materials readily available in the market. This allows for greater flexibility in material selection, depending on the specific requirements of the part being manufactured. On the other hand, 3D printing is typically limited by the materials that are compatible with the specific 3D printing technology being used.

While 3D printing has come a long way in terms of material options, it may still have some limitations in terms of material availability, properties, and performance compared to CNC. However, 3D printing excels in producing parts with intricate geometries and internal structures that may be challenging or impossible to achieve with CNC. The choice between 3D printing and CNC in terms of material versatility depends on the specific material requirements and properties needed for the intended application of the part.

3d printing vs cnc material comparison chart

Design Limitations and Prototyping Flexibility

When it comes to design limitations and prototyping flexibility, 3D printing offers greater freedom and versatility compared to CNC. 3D printing allows for the creation of complex geometries, intricate details, and internal structures that may be challenging or impossible to achieve with CNC. It enables designers to create parts with high levels of customization, including personalized shapes, sizes, and features.

Moreover, 3D printing allows for the use of lightweight structures, lattices, and optimized designs that can result in parts with reduced weight, increased strength, and improved performance. 3D printing also offers rapid and cost-effective prototyping, making it ideal for iterative design processes and quick design iterations. It enables designers to produce functional prototypes with complex geometries, internal structures, and intricate details, allowing for thorough testing and validation of design concepts. Additionally, 3D printing offers the flexibility to easily modify or update designs on the fly, without the need for extensive retooling or reprogramming. On the other hand, CNC processes may have certain design limitations due to the constraints of the cutting tools, tool access angles, and material removal techniques. CNC may also require more time and effort in tooling setup, programming, and material selection for prototyping. CNC processes may also have limitations in producing certain complex geometries or internal structures that are achievable with 3D printing.

However, CNC prototyping may offer advantages in producing functional prototypes with specific material properties or surface treatment that are closer to the final production parts.


Post-processing is an important aspect of manufacturing that involves additional steps after the initial production process to achieve the desired final characteristics or aesthetics of a part. Compared with 3D Printing, CNC processes generally offer more options and flexibility. Here we make a comparison from the following aspects to make it easier to understand.

Surface treatment

CNC: It is easily achievable through techniques such as polishing, grinding, painting, anodizing, plating, or coating to achieve specific surface finishes, textures, or colors.

3D Printing: This may require additional steps such as sanding, painting, heat treating, or chemical treatments, but options may be more limited compared to CNC processes.

Functional Features

CNC: Features such as threads, fasteners, or inserts can be easily integrated during the production process itself, eliminating the need for additional post-processing steps.

3D Printing: This may require additional steps such as support removal, part cleaning, or curing of the material depending on the specific 3D printing technology used.

Machining & Dimensional Requirements

CNC: CNC-produced parts can be easily machined, drilled, or tapped to meet specific dimensional requirements.

3D Printing: This may require additional post-processing steps or may have limitations in achieving precise dimensional requirements.

Time & Resources

CNC: CNC processes may require additional time and resources for post-processing, but offer more options and flexibility.

3D Printing: 3D printing may require additional steps, time, and resources for post-processing, and there are more limited in options compared to CNC processes.


CNC generally offers higher production volume capabilities compared to 3D printing. CNC machines are capable of high-speed and high-volume production, making them suitable for large-scale manufacturing. CNC processes can be automated, allowing for efficient and consistent production of multiple identical parts. CNC also allows for batch processing, where multiple parts can be produced simultaneously, further enhancing production efficiency. On the other hand, 3D printing is typically better suited for low to medium production volumes. While 3D printing can be automated to some extent, the print time for individual parts can be longer compared to CNC, which can impact production throughput. 3D printing is often better suited for prototyping, customization, and small-batch production. However, advancements in 3D printing technology, such as multi-material printing and large-scale 3D printers, are expanding the scalability of 3D printing for certain applications. The scalability of 3D printing vs. CNC will depend on the production volume requirements of the specific project or application.


In conclusion, choosing between 3D printing and CNC service for your manufacturing depends on various factors. CNC service offers high precision, accuracy, and material versatility, making it suitable for complex and precise parts. It also allows for a wide range of post-processing options and is suitable for larger production volumes. On the other hand, 3D printing offers unique advantages in terms of design freedom, prototyping flexibility, and faster turnaround times. However, it may have limitations in precision, accuracy, material options, and post-processing compared to CNC processes. Ultimately, the decision between 3D printing and CNC service will depend on your specific project requirements and priorities, and finding the right balance between cost, quality, speed, and design considerations will help you make an informed decision for your manufacturing needs.

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