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3D printing vs. CNC machining — Is it a debate we should still be having?

Ever since the birth of 3D printing, much of the discussion surrounding it has focused on whether or not it will eventually replace CNC machining and other well-established manufacturing techniques. As the technology has slowly matured, it’s become increasingly evident that this is highly unlikely to ever be the case. Instead, 3D printing has quietly but confidently established itself as a powerful tool for rapid prototyping, custom or limited-run parts, and a select number of specialist production applications. At the same time, CNC machining’s position as a versatile and reliable tool for production parts remains very much secure.

While the promised ‘3D Printing Revolution’ has not materialised, the technology’s small victories have gradually established its credibility among both industry and the general public. Well-established authorities like The Economist have shown increasing confidence in the possibilities offer by 3D printing, helping banish the perception of it as a niche technology that will always be the domain of committed hobbyists.

Crucially, more and more manufacturers are exploring hybrid processes, where the multiple technologies are combined in a single workflow to obtain results that would not be achievable otherwise. For example, while it is now possible to 3D print in metal, these parts still require a measure of post-processing, which often involves CNC machining for additional shaping and finishing. As a result, factories making use of 3D metal printing will still require CNC facilities on-site. This is by no means a bad thing though. With both technologies available, CNC machining can be used for regular, high-volume production, allowing factories to benefit from its speed and consistency, while 3D printing can be used to create functional prototypes or customised parts that would not be cost-effective to produce otherwise.

That’s just one example. We’re seeing similar developments with 3D printing and injection moulding. Forward-thinking companies are using 3D printing to generate moulds at a rate that would not have been possible before, while still taking full advantage of the quality and consistency injection moulding offers.

Perhaps at least partially in response to these developments, we’re seeing more and more technology which is designed to bridge the gap between additive and ‘traditional’ manufacturing. For example, in March 2017, a Kickstarter project was launched for a modular printer that would combine 3D printing, CNC shaping and laser engraving in a single unit. While, we remain unconvinced whether such a unit would ever be able to match the capabilities of dedicated industrial units, it’s certainly an intriguing concept and signals that more and more professionals are considering how different technologies can most effectively be combined.

So in light of all this, should we still be assessing 3D printing’s capabilities based on its potential to completely dominate the manufacturing industry? From our point of view, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’. Instead, we should continue exploring ways in which the technologies can complement and enhance each other and — perhaps most importantly — establish systems to make these processes as efficient as possible. As we’ve already seen during 3D printing’s relatively short history, it takes time for a new technology to properly establish itself and for best practice to evolve around it. Things become even more complicated when multiple technologies exist within a single workflow, as this creates opportunities for disconnects and inefficiencies to develop.

While it’s certainly a major challenge for the manufacturing sector, we’re very much looking forward to playing an active role in developing the tools and systems needed to establishing these processes. With these in place, manufacturing teams will be free to focus on how the growing range of technologies at their disposal can best be employed to bring innovative new concepts to life.