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CNC Machining vs. 3D Printing for Metal Prototypes

Metal fabrication is a technique that involves cutting, forming, punching, stamping, shearing, and welding the metal. They have certain shapes, sizes, and cuts to fit bigger machinery as a part of a final product. Some common metal prototype fabrication methods are CNC machining and 3D Printing.

CNC Machining vs. 3D Printing for Metal Prototypes

These methods give the freedom to create faster and more accurate designs with less room for errors. Basically, CNC methods remove the metal parts to generate the final product. On the other hand, 3D printing uses an additive fabrication technique. 

In this article, we’ll compare the two and learn which one may be the right choice. 

What is CNC Machining for Metal Prototypes?

CNC machining—computer numerical control machining refers to the automated manufacturing of metal prototypes using computer programs. The software decides the movement of the tools to create the end piece.

CNC Machining for Metal Prototypes

As the name suggests, the computer numerical control machining method is precise and quick. Each step is controlled via computer software. This implies there are fewer errors and less need for trained workers. The best part is that even complex three-dimensional prototypes can be made using basic software.

Benefits of CNC machining

Here are some major benefits of CNC machining

Simple operation method with precision 

One of the major advantages of CNC machining is the ease of operation. You just require software for a certain design, and the machine works using its commands. Moreover, the designs are precise and result in perfect metal jobs. The simplified operation also requires less labor on site as the computer software is managing most of the process. 

No need for supervision

As discussed above, CNC machines can be used without much supervision. In addition, they are programmed to work for hours without the need for repairs and maintenance. This makes these machines operable for hours and days at a stretch, giving maximum output. 

High scalability 

CNC is great when you wish to produce a certain number of metal pieces. The software can work in a short period, making the production highly profitable and cheap for the company. You will not need any special software or tools to increase the production. The software just requires a command to fulfill the order.

What is 3D Printing for Metal Prototypes?

3D printing or additive manufacturing creates a metal component using raw powder material with an adhesive binder. It can make complex designs with a low production cost. You may adjust the number of pieces as per the needs instead of mass producing.

3D Printing for Metal Prototypes

This implies custom pieces are easier to make using 3D Printing. 3D printing operates rapidly to generate a three-dimensional model as per the design. It may work on metals, plastics, and even human tissues. Therefore, there are several applications of 3D Printing.

Benefits of 3D Printing

Here are the benefits of 3D Printing: 

Custom pieces 

With additive manufacturing, pieces with unusual shapes and sizes can be created easily. Unlike CNC, cutting tools, 3D printing can create complex designs by working in layers. With small layers of powder, it creates these shapes precisely. 

Minimal waste

As there is no cutting involved, the raw material does not go to waste in the 3D printing process. Some materials may also be used again to create a support structure for the metal pieces. 

Cost-effective

3D printing machines are easy to install and use at an affordable price. No complex software is needed, along with highly sensitive tools in additive manufacturing. 3D printing is able to create complex pieces with simple raw materials. 

Use of multiple materials 

Metals may be used along with ceramics and thermoplastics as needed by the machinery. With several material options, one can create solid and durable pieces via the process of 3D Printing. 

Comparison Between CNC Machining and 3D Printing for Metal Prototypes–Is one better than the other?

Learn more about CNC machining and 3D printing for metal prototypes to decide which one may be better for your company. 

CNC wastes more raw material than 3D Printing

CNC machines lead to raw material waste as they remove metal parts from a larger chunk of metal to create prototypes. The disposed material is of no use after the manufacturing. A CNC machine may create up to 50% scarp from the manufacturing process. So you will have to factor in this cost. 

The cost of operation is higher for CNC than for 3D Printing

Running 3D printing is cheaper than CNC as you do not need expensive software and additional raw materials. Moreover, you’ll need less energy to run 3D printing machinery in comparison to CNC machines, thus reducing operational costs further. 

3D Printing has a lower output than CNC

3D printing creates the end product by adding multiple layers, which is extremely time-consuming. The machines may work at 1-5 cubic inches/hour. As a result of this, manufacturing in bulk will take a long time. 

On the other hand, CNC cuts through the raw material quickly to give the metal prototype. You may find CNC machines that work at more than 700 cubic inches/hour. 

CNC produces strong and durable pieces

CNC machines cut through solid blocks of metal with precision; hence, they create sturdy metal pieces. On the flip side, 3D printing uses glue to hold the material, which may not be comparatively strong. 

Choosing the Manufacturing Process: CNC Machining or 3D Printing?

When to choose the CNC machining process: 

  • If you have the skilled labor to operate the machines, CNC machining will offer bulk manufacturing. 
  • When you have the patience and time to consider the speed of manufacturing, rigidity, load-carrying capacity, and tool life, choose CNC machining.
  • If you are making simple solid metal parts, CNC’s subtractive manufacturing will be ideal. 
  • CNC machines offer dimensional accuracy and mechanical properties; therefore, the parts produced will fit properly in larger machines. 
  • If you have provisions to treat the metal parts with bead blasting, anodizing (Type II & Type III), or powder coating, choose CNC machining.

When to choose the 3D printing process:

  • For quick parts production, you can 3D print it in less than 24 hours.
  • It’s ideal for when you are on a budget and need to do cost-cutting. 
  • Choose 3D printing when other methods are not effective in producing highly complex geometrical metal designs. 
  • 3D printing can deliver identical parts with precision. 
  • When looking for a metal part combined with other materials, such as TPU or metal alloys, 3D printing works better than any other.
  • After 3D printing, you will have to treat the parts with media blasting, sanding & polishing, micro-polishing, and metal plating. So if you have provisions for these, choose this method.

Parting Words 

Both CNC machining and 3D printing additive manufacturing have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to metal part fabrication. You may consider the cost to manufacture, time taken, required quantity and intricacy of the metal piece when picking the manufacturing process. CNC is ideal for bulk manufacturing in less time; however, you will be paying more for operation. 

3D printing is an excellent choice for custom pieces that have intricate 3D designs. Also, if you wish to keep the production cost low, 3D printing keeps that in check. You may compare and study the product use and life cycle to choose one method over the other. 

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