Using 3D Printing vs. CNC Prototyping for Building Prototype Designs

3D printing and CNC prototyping offer two different prototyping methods with two different production processes. 3D printing uses additive manufacturing, while CNC prototyping uses subtractive manufacturing. Between 3D printing and CNC prototyping, which one should you use for building prototype designs?

In this guide, you will learn about using 3D printing and CNC prototyping advantages and disadvantages and choose which one is the best for building prototype designs.

3D Printing – Advantages and Disadvantages


  • Fast and inexpensive prototyping. Prototyping with 3D printing is fast and inexpensive, and it is very simple to do. You can even do it by yourself without the help of other people, if you know how to create CAD design and how to operate the 3D printing equipment. It’s the reason it is a preferable prototyping method for hobbyists.
  • You can use 3D printing for prototyping at home. You can easily buy any 3D printing equipment and connect it to your computer at home. This prototyping method offers accessibility that you can’t get from other methods.
  • Easy to create prototype design. 3D printing is a prototyping method that you can do by yourself. It is a user-friendly prototyping method suitable for both personal and commercial projects. It is so simple to create a prototype design using any CAD software and send your design to the 3D printing equipment to get it 3D-printed.
  • Minimal waste materials. The 3D printing method uses an additive manufacturing method, meaning that you will use the materials only when you need it. There will be no materials that will get removed in this process. So, you will end up with minimal waste materials when you use this prototyping method.
  • Easy prototype improvements. You can test your prototype and add some improvements as quickly as possible, and then re-print the updated prototype fast. 3D printing allows you to perform quick tests on your prototype and print as many updates for your prototypes as you need.


  • Limited to plastic prototypes. With 3D printing, you can only make prototypes from plastic materials or any other materials supported by the 3D printing equipment. However, the range of materials offered by 3D printing is very limited, so you don’t have too many choices for the materials to use with this method.
  • Limited prototype size. The size of the prototype you can build is also limited, as 3D printing equipment will have quite a small area of operation where you can build your prototype in. So, you can’t use this prototyping method if you plan to build a large prototype in a single process.
  • Some inaccuracies might occur in the prototypes. Between the design you create and the prototypes you produce, you might notice slight inaccuracies from time to time. It will depend on the 3D printing equipment and the materials you use.

CNC Prototyping – Advantages and Disadvantages


  • Superior quality prototype. Compared to the 3D printing method, which can only produce lightweight plastic prototypes, the CNC prototyping method is way more superior in producing better-quality prototypes. With CNC prototyping, you can produce the prototypes that are closer to the final products, with all their features and functionalities.
  • Better finishing for the prototype. CNC prototyping can also provide better finishing for the prototype you build, even without any additional manufacturing processes. This can make your prototypes aesthetically pleasing and better looking.
  • Better prototype precision and accuracy. You can’t beat the precision and accuracy you will get when building your prototype with CNC prototyping as compared to the 3D printing method. CNC is a method that uses programmable and computerized calculations, so the margin of error is always zero or very minimal. As a result, you can get better prototype precision and accuracy.
  • Faster prototyping process. CNC prototyping is also fast in building your prototype, and you can get your prototype done in just a few minutes. It uses robotics and automations to ensure the swift delivery of your prototype.
  • Possibility to combine multiple materials for your prototype. CNC prototyping allows you to use different materials for one prototype, as it supports the use of various material types, such as steel, aluminum, titanium, wood, brass, copper, and many others. So, it can give you the flexibility to follow your design requirements much better than the 3D printing method, which is limited to plastic materials.


  • More expensive process. CNC prototyping is a way more expensive process when compared to 3D printing. So, in many cases, only medium to big businesses can afford the use of CNC machining equipment. Meanwhile, using CNC machining or complete prototype services can also still be more expensive than using a 3D printing service.
  • Limited capability. CNC machining equipment often have limited capability in what they can do, unless you are using the multi-purpose CNC machining equipment. Some machining equipment might only be able to perform specific tasks, such as cutting, milling, turning, etc. It means you will need to use multiple CNC machining equipment to complete a single prototype.
  • More difficult prototype designing process. CNC prototyping involves a more difficult prototype designing process when compared to 3D printing. So, it might not be suitable for hobbyists or beginners in manufacturing production. The design process is also more complicated to do.

3D Printing vs. CNC Prototyping – Which is the Best for Building a Prototype Design?

Choosing between different rapid manufacturing methods, such as 3D printing and CNC prototyping, might be a difficult thing to do, as each method offers their own benefits and disadvantages. However, there’s one rule of thumb you should follow.

If you want to build a real prototype, which means the prototype that can provide you with similar features and functionalities as the end products, it’s best for you to use the CNC prototyping method, as it offers the accuracy, precision, material selection, and quality you need. However, if you are looking to build just the sample version of your product with limited functionality or just to see how the final product will look, then 3D printing will be enough for you.

Next, consider also the cost and the purpose of your prototypes. If you are on a budget, stick with 3D printing, and you can also use 3D printing for smaller projects or hobbies.


You can choose between 3D printing and CNC prototyping based on your project needs, purpose, and budget. Each will offer different advantages for you, which you should consider before choosing any one of them. The one thing you need to keep in mind is that both methods can produce high-quality prototypes for you.