March 27, 2021

CNC Machine vs 3d Printer | Which One Do I Need?

Which one will it be, CNC Machine vs 3d Printer? The development of durable materials requires a perfect machine for precision. The introduction of the CNC machine is a way of exploring printing on different materials. These two machines have similarities and differences that separate them. 

That is how you get to pick your best between the two compared with your needs. As much as 3D printing saves both time and money, CNC machining still has its strengths in some key areas. The evaluation below will take you to your best pick between the products.

Overview of the CNC Machine

The CNC machine starts with a block material called a blank that cuts off material to make a finished part. The cutter and spinning tools shape the piece. It works with accuracy on wood, metals and plastics. The CNC machine focuses on ABS, Nylon, Polycarbonate, Acrylic, Polypropylene, POM and Peek plastic. 

Aluminum is also used by the CNC machine. It is recyclable and effective. It uses steel, magnesium, alloy and brass.  The CNC machining requires your hand as it runs the material. It requires a skilled operator to choose the perfect tool, rotation speeds of the tools, the cutting path and repositioning of the material you are working on. 

Your contribution does not end there. You offer post-processing skills that take more time. You can hardly multitask when you are using the CNC machine. The CNC machine is efficient on large sizes of material. CNC machines like the CNC Lathe are used for mass production. It has a way of tolerating dimensions.


  • Great dimensional accuracy
  • Compatible with multiple materials
  • Increases production volume
  • Ideal for complex tasks
  • Safe


  • Not affordable
  • It requires your hand when in use

(See Some CNC Machine Price)

Key Features of the CNC Machine

Control panel

It is amongst the CNC machine parts used to set the program for activities done on the workpiece. It allows you to have control over the machine. That is where you change settings and control your speed. The operation code is fed into the machine via the control panel so that it runs automatically.


The pedal known as the foot-switch is where the operator opens or closes the chuck for gripping. The material needs a grip, other-wise it will slip away. It is operated the same way you do a tailstock.


The chuck is onto the main spindle. It makes sure that your workpiece is on to the correct position. 


It brings extra grip to the workpiece. Chances are low that it will move from the position as the machine runs. It comes with the tailstock quill that is a setting needed by the workpiece between the centers.


That is the heart of the machine that fixes the material. It comes with the motor that drives the main spindle.

Overview of the 3d Printer

The 3D works on parts created layer-by-layer using multiple materials. These include plastic filaments, resins, or metal powders. The source of energy used is the laser or heated extruder. It works in each layer of materials and is solidified so that it forms the finished part. 

3D printing focuses more on thermoplastics such as ABS, PLA and Nylon. It also uses photo-polymers such as wax or calcinable. Some 3D printers work on sand or ceramics. On metals, it uses aluminum, stainless steel, titanium and Inconel. However, printing using 3D comes at a price. 

The 3D is easy to use. You need to prepare the file once, choose the part orientation, fill and support if there is a need. When the machine starts printing, you will not need to do a manual task. All you need to do is wait for it until it is done. 3D printing creates parts with high geometric complexity. 


  • Innovative and accurate
  • Freedom of shape
  • It works on multiple applications
  • Fast speed and cuts costs
  • Lightweight parts


  • Not ideal for mass production
  • Limited in speed and accessibility

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Key features of the 3D Printer


The 3D has the Rapid Prototyping technology. That is a process whereby you design, manufacture and customize a part in a short space of time. The saw design depends on speed, and the user has the freedom to creativity. The machine is ideal for small businesses and DIY enthusiasts.

Build volume

The machine is flexible, and it has a way it creates or works on parts that fit within its stipulated build volume. Designs are into the slicer software and they will be without additional changes inside the machine. Unlike traditional machines, it allows complex geometry. 


The 3D printing needs you to follow the step-by-step assembly of each part. That enhances the design and improved quality parts. The Fused deposition modeling makes objects layer by layer starting from the bottom heating the filament.

Layer thickness

Layer thickness is about the surface finish of a part. The material cannot be predicted. It comes in multiple forms, hence your machine has to be versatile to deal with that. 


The maximum speed to run your machine at is not standard. What determines speed is the height of the part and the build quality of the part. 


There is no need to assume the thickness of parts since they come in different forms. That means you cannot universalize accuracy. What determines the accuracy on your part is length, geometry and orientation.


  • The CNC Machine and the 3d Printer are compatible with multiple materials such as plastic and metals.
  • They are both limited by the tool size.
  • They both have service temperature limits.


  • 3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing, whereas CNC machining is subtractive. That means the CNC machining trims away material to make the finished part. Cutters and spinning tools shape the material.  3D printing revolves around parts layer-by-layer using materials such as plastic filaments or metal powders.
  • 3D printing focuses more on plastic,whereas the CNC machine focuses on metal.
  • The 3D is easier to use than the CNC machine. 
  • When you are using the CNC, you need to operate the machine, whereas 3D printing is left alone when printing. 
  • The CNC machine is more tolerant than the 3D. 
  • The 3D printer in form of the SLS and DMLS are weak in build volume as compared to the CNC machine.
  • The CNC machining is more effective on parts that demand extra smoothness than the 3D.
  • The CNC machining is faster than 3D printing.


3D printing is more affordable than the CNC machine. The 3D printers differ in prices depending on levels. If you are a beginner, you can have from 200 to 500. Higher-end machines range from 1,500 to 6,000. The CNC machine ranges from 1000 to 3000 for hobbyists, but for hardcore users, it ranges from 5,000 to 500 000. 


There is no perfect product between the CNC Machine and 3d Printer that is universal. Both machines are excellent in performance as they come with innovation. The one that suits your needs will be appropriate depending on the material, geometric complexity and budget. 3D printing is quite innovative and comes with freedom of shape. It saves time, and it still delivers high-quality materials on an industrial level production. 

However, it is not strong enough to support mass production. It is limited in speed and accessibility. The CNC machining has dimensional accuracy although it requires your physical input in a lot of features, whilst using the machine. For materials that require exceptional smoothness, I recommend the CNC machine.  If you have a tight budget, I recommend the 3D printer. Check out our post on the best CNC machine for wood carving.

David D. Hughes

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