For decades, CNC machining has been to go-to method for precision manufacturing. It uses computer software to move the tools and machinery to create the parts that are needed. But now there is a new contender for the crown of the best manufacturing system – 3D printing. So, will this replace CNC machining?
What is 3D printing?
3D printing creates the parts required by building objects a single layer at a time. This brings a range of benefits that mean it is quickly becoming the preferred method of manufacturing for some industries or for some tasks.
One of the biggest benefits of this system is the speed of production compared to traditional methods such as CNC machining. Complex designs can be added to the machine from a CAD model and print in just a few hours which makes it far quicker to create prototypes and have them verified and developed.
This allows manufacturers to create a prototype for customers in a few hours whereas it would normally take days or even weeks to do. Not only that but it offers huge time savings for low or mid-volume orders as they can be completed quickly and efficiently.
A single step manufacturing process
Another reason that 3D printing is moving to the forefront for some industries is that it is single step manufacture. In existing processes, a number of steps would be required to get from the design to the end result. For example, a CAD model is created then fabrication of the steel profiles are created. Sometimes custom parts are created, and the finishing techniques applied.
With 3D printing, the steps are simple – CAD design to 3D print to installation. There’s no need for all the multiple steps that are required in a CNC machining process which saves both time and also cost. It also reduces the risk that parts aren’t correct when received or ensure if there are problems, a new part can quickly and easily be produced.
The pros for CNC machining
While there are growing places that 3D printing is becoming the chosen method, people working in CNC machining don’t need to fear for their roles just yet as there are still plenty of places where this system is needed.
Top of the list of reasons why CNC machining is still favourite for some jobs is the accuracy it offers. 3D printing is still relatively new and there are odd occasions where internals stresses during production can cause changes to the size or shape of the item. This isn’t an issue with CNC machining as components are used or even created specifically to handle the requirements of the task.
The other big reason is the materials available. While both systems can work with a large range of materials including plastics and metals, there is a bigger focus on 3D printing for things like resins or thermoplastics. But there are no limits with CNC machining which can work on anything from machining wax and modelling foams to steel alloys and wood.
A place for both systems
It is clear that there are lots of innovations coming through in the realm of 3D printing – you can check out the Protolabs Insight video series for ideas on the very latest developments and uses for it. But there is also still a place for CNC machining in the current world of manufacture.
Looking ahead, as 3D printing expands and evolves, it may be that it replaces CNC machining for many or even most of the daily tasks required. But there will always be the need for the benefits that it brings and means it will still have a place in manufacturing systems.