3D Printers vs CNC Routers

3D Printers vs CNC Routers

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3d printer

So you’re trying to decide between getting a 3d printer or a cnc router? Well we’ll dig in deeper to give you some perspective on which one to choose based on their advantages and disadvantages. Here we go..

3d printer overview

A 3d printer prints an object up in layers typically using resin/ plastic. 3d printers now can go down to such a small resolution (layer size) that you won’t need to do much surface finishing on your object.

3d printing benefits

Great resolution – with many of the new printers like the Form 1+ that can go down to 25 microns (0.025 mm). With this kind of precision, you won’t have to do any surface finishing (hand sanding).

Complex shapes and surfaces – With 3d printing you can create complex surfaces, so surfaces at any angle, e.g. think of a sports car that has curves that come out at the side of the car then slopes down towards the bottom. This is done by using the actual resin/ plastic for the actual object and then a ‘construction/ holding’ type of material underneath to hold the structure in place. This building material gets removed afterwards. You won’t be able to achieve complex surfaces wit ha regular 3 axis cnc router, unless you step up to a 4/5 axis router, or be willing to separate and move parts to accommodate your 3 axis router.

Machinery fits all price points – 3d printers have been coming down. For open/ closed 3d printers, you can pick up a full featured printer for a few thousand dollars like the Bucaneer or Form 1+. You can also go low end (not as many features – but still okay resolution) like the Peachy printer or Micro 3D which are both well below the $1000 mark.

You have a lot of different options here, from cheap to expensive to experiment with. With printers getting cheaper and cheaper, the reality of everyone owning one in their home (for cheap) in future is getting closer.

Different colors – You can get resins of different colors, so you don’t have to paint your model afterwards.

Tool-less – Compared to cnc routing, you don’t have to worry about the different tool heads (drill bits). This can lead to much faster lead and production times.

Speed – With 3d printing you can print a prototype up quickly if you have your own 3d printer. For something rough for a concept, you can choose a rougher resolution, then when you are ready to print the final product after adjustments, then you can use a finer resolution.

3d printing negatives

Can only use plastic/ resin* – You are limited in structural integrity. You’ll mainly be making models and a few things for practical applications like a phone case.

*There are metal 3d printing machines out there for industrial use – but you won’t see these in your home any time soon.

Confined by bed size – Depending on the 3d printer you have, you will be confined by the printing bed dimensions. A way to get around this is simply splitting up your parts in your 3d modelling program, printing the parts, then join them together afterwards. This isn’t really a quick process for printing larger objects so can be a big disadvantage.

Top 3d printing models

Check out this article over at CNC Establishment. Our favorites are the M3D, Form 1+ and the Flashforge 3D.

CNC router overview

A cnc router is used to route out material from a solid block. From small scale cnc routers that route out boards of wood to larger scale cnc machines used for routing foam for creating fiberglass molds – there are machines of all shapes an sizes in this arena.

A cnc router looks like a drill press, but has a bed to hold the material on and the cnc router itself uses different tooling to cut – this could be drill bits, but it could also be something more fancy like a plasma or water jet cutter.

CNC router benefits

Able to use more materials – A cnc router can cut through things as soft as foam for prototyping or molds to wood and metal.

Can be cheaper – If all you want to do is small scale work, then a 3 axis small benchtop cnc machine will do the job great. Of course this will probably not come with an enclosure, so you’re going to have to have a dedicated space for the machine – out of the way of flying material.

Lots of support and free software – Cnc engraving or cutting routers have been around for a long time. There are great open-source G-code software options out there that are free, as well as solid paid options like Mach (currently at Mach 4).

Comes in larger sizes – You can get much larger sizes. Cnc routers don’t have to have an enclosure. As long as you have a large arm, bed size and the space, you can go as big as you want.

Complex surfaces can be done – With a 5 axis cnc machine, you can route complex surfaces, but obviously you’re never going to get super intricate surfaces down to the level of detail a 3d printer may have due to the tiny resolutions they now work with (a quarter of a mm).

CNC router negatives

Unable to make very small shapes – The “resolution” of a cnc machine to make little small models just isn’t there. Even with ABS plastic and a very good router, you aren’t going to be able to get your material down very thin on the y axis.

Community isn’t getting much larger – Due to the popularity of 3d printers, cnc routing seems to be lagging in personal use. There is still a solid crowd out there, but we’re seeing a more popular trend in 3d printing for the time being.

The final word

Overall it really comes down to your own individual project needs. I think enclosed 3d printers are great for home use and you can make some pretty cool things using them. However for garage use, you would probably be leaning more towards a router.

I think owning both would be ieal, but if I had to buy only one, it would be a cnc router. They just fit what I do better, and with most things done on a 3d printer – you can buy these things for cheap anyway (unless you’re talking about custom objects).

Which do you have, a 3d printer or cnc router? If you don’t have either – which one would you go for?