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Prototype Manufacturing Cost Analysis: CNC Milling vs. 3D Printing

purity muriuki



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As a small business owner, you may need to create prototypes of your products to test their functionality and design before starting mass production. There are various prototype manufacturing methods available, but two of the most popular and accessible methods are CNC milling and 3D printing. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, including cost. In this article, we will compare the costs of CNC milling and 3D printing to help you make an informed decision about the best option for your business.

CNC Milling

CNC milling is a subtractive manufacturing method that uses computer-controlled machines to remove material from a workpiece to create a prototype. It is a highly-precise and accurate method that can produce complex shapes and designs. However, CNC milling can be expensive, especially for small businesses. The cost of a CNC milling prototype depends on several factors, including the complexity of the design, the type of material used, and the number of prototypes required.

The upfront cost of CNC milling can be high, as it requires specialized equipment, software, and skilled personnel to operate the machines. However, the cost per unit can decrease with higher production volumes. In the long run, CNC milling can save you money by producing high-quality prototypes that are accurate and durable, reducing the need for rework and minimizing material waste.

3D Printing

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, creates three-dimensional objects by adding material layer by layer. It is a versatile and cost-effective method that has gained popularity in recent years. The cost of 3D printing depends on various factors, including the type of material used, the complexity of the design, and the size of the object.

The upfront cost of 3D printing is relatively low compared to CNC milling, as it requires less specialized equipment and personnel. The cost per unit can also decrease with higher production volumes, but it may not be as significant as with CNC milling. The material cost for 3D printing can vary depending on the type of material used, with some materials being more expensive than others.

The time it takes to produce a prototype using 3D printing can be relatively fast, making it an attractive option for small businesses that need to create prototypes quickly. However, the accuracy and durability of 3D-printed prototypes may not be as high as those produced by CNC milling. This can result in the need for additional rework and material waste, which can increase the overall cost.

 Comparison of Costs

When deciding between CNC milling and 3D printing for prototype manufacturing, it’s essential to weigh the upfront costs against the long-term benefits. While 3D printing is generally less expensive upfront, it may not always be the most cost-effective option in the long run. For example, if you require high precision or specialized materials, 3D printing may not be the best choice.

Another factor to consider is the scalability of your production process. While 3D printing is suitable for small-scale production, it may not be as efficient or cost-effective for larger runs. CNC milling, on the other hand, can produce large volumes of parts with consistent quality, making it a good choice for scaling up production.

It’s also worth noting that the cost of materials can vary widely between CNC milling and 3D printing. CNC milling generally requires more expensive materials, such as metals and high-grade plastics. While 3D printing can use a wider range of materials, including less expensive plastics, resins, and even some metals. However, if you require high-quality, durable parts, you may need to invest in more expensive materials regardless of the manufacturing method.

In addition to material costs, it’s vital to consider the cost of labor and expertise required for each manufacturing method. CNC milling requires skilled machinists and programmers to operate the machinery and software, while 3D printing can be more automated and require less specialized knowledge. However, designing parts for CNC milling can be more complex than designing for 3D printing, which may require more design expertise.

Overall, the choice between CNC milling and 3D printing for prototype manufacturing will depend on various factors, including the required precision, materials, scalability, and cost considerations. While 3D printing is often less expensive upfront and can be a good option for small-scale production or prototyping, CNC milling may be more cost-effective in the long run for larger production runs or when high precision is required.


To sum up, both CNC milling and 3D printing have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to prototype manufacturing costs. While 3D printing may be a more affordable option in certain situations, CNC milling can offer greater precision, scalability, and quality. Small business owners should carefully consider their specific needs and budget when choosing between these two methods. By doing so, they can make an informed decision that will benefit their business in the long run.

I'm a passionate full-time blogger. I love writing about startups, how they can access key resources, avoid legal mistakes, respond to questions from angel investors as well as the reality check for startups. Continue reading my articles for more insight.

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