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CNC Machining vs 3D Printing

CNC machining and 3D printing are two manufacturing methods with the same goal: creating a 3D final product. However, these two processes are very different, each with its own set of advantages and use cases. The following compares CNC machining versus 3D printing. It is imperative that companies understand each of these processes in order to determine which method is best for their specific application. Additionally, partnering with a proven manufacturer, like Stanley Machining that has over 55 years of experience, ensures you get guidance on the various manufacturing methods for your specific project as well as access to cutting-edge equipment and decades of time on tools and machining know-how.

What are CNC Machining and 3D Printing?

Both 3D printing and CNC machining start with a digital 3D design but quickly divert down two very different manufacturing paths. 3D printing is a process that builds a three-dimensional object based on a Computer Aided Design (CAD) sketch. 3D printing is one of several technologies under the umbrella of Additive Manufacturing (AM), named as such since it starts from nothing and builds layer by layer of material. The 3D printing machine uses the CAD data to add successive layers of liquid, powder, or other material to manufacture a 3D object. A wide range of materials can be used for 3D printing including metals, plastics, and composites and these are called filament. The equipment required for 3D printing are the spools of filament material and the 3D printer itself, resulting in low upfront capital costs. 3D printing allows manufacturers to fabricate parts on-demand as this process only needs a new CAD input in order to manufacture a new product, and does not require retooling or machine changes. Lastly, 3D printing generates minimal waste since it is an AM method.

CNC machining is a manufacturing process that uses a computer to control machinery. The desired geometry and requirements for the final product are entered into the CAD software. Then, the software is used to control machinery operating conditions such as speed and location. The computer directs the CNC machine to execute the desired cuts to the block of raw material with the machine operating like a robot. CNC machining is used for metals and plastics, and common operations include lathes, routers, grinders, and mills. Many CNC machines operate on multiple axes to achieve complicated geometries. While most CNC machines operate on the X- and Y- axes at the same time, some advanced machines may have up to five axes that work in parallel, such as Stanley Machining’s 5-axis machines. CNC machining is a high precision process that manufactures products that are virtually identical from part to part which provides excellent consistency and part reliability.

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Is CNC Machining or 3D Printing Better?

The answer, of course, depends on the specifics of your project such as geometry, size, and volume. Generally speaking, 3D printing and CNC machining do not compete for the same projects as they are each suited for different manufacturing situations. Below are some examples of when each process makes good business sense.

CNC machining is known for its precision and superb product quality. The machine executes the same program every single time for a given part and is an efficient process, making it a good option for low as well as high volumes. One advantage that is often underestimated is the flexibility and versatility that CNC machining offers manufacturers. CNC processes are able to fabricate sizes, shapes and geometries, as well as achieve tight tolerances, that are simply not possible with other methods, including most 3D printers. Lastly, CNC machining is a proven and trusted technology with decades of experience and know-how to rely on, whereas 3D printing is a relatively new manufacturing method.

In general, 3D printing is most cost-effective for lower volume runs including prototypes and small batches. This technique offers customers flexibility and the ability to tweak the design by simply modifying the CAD inputs since no hard tooling changes are required. This method is also attractive when a quick turnround time is necessary as little lead time is necessary. Lastly, additive manufacturing methods, such as 3D printing, generate significantly less waste than traditional manufacturing, and in some cases, waste can be entirely eliminated.

There are some instances where a combination of 3D printing and CNC machining may be the most cost-effective solution. For example, 3D printing may be used for prototyping a part. Then, CNC machining is employed for full scale production of the product.

About Stanley Machining

Since 1966 Stanley Machining has been proudly providing unsurpassed, multi-industry contract manufacturing solutions to world renowned OEM's and government entities. As a global leader in precision CNC machining, we continue to provide unsurpassed expertise and value as a true partner with our customers. OEMs rely on our superior expertise and machining processes to enable them to maintain a competitive edge. We serve commercial and industrial sectors across a range of markets including defense, power, aerospace, and oil & gas.

We take pride in our quality assurance program and we are ISO 9001:2015 certified. We continuously re-invest in state-of-the-art equipment and highest caliber quality professionals. Stanley is a women-owned small business with over 125 employees and 200 pieces of CNC equipment under 400,000 sq. ft. in two locations.

Stanley Machining offers a wide array of machining centers to meet our customer needs. Our size and breadth allow us to offer a wide range of capabilities from small to large format production components. Stanley's wide range of equipment produces the most high-quality and close tolerance cutting edge components, including non-symmetric work pieces.

Contact us today to see how we can help with your next CNC precision machining project, or give us a call at 847-426-4560.

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