CNC vs. 3D Printing – Which is More Cost-Effective for Prototyping?

Both CNC and 3D printing offer rapid manufacturing methods you can use to produce quick prototypes for your project. However, both methods are not equally cost-effective. When comparing between the two, 3D printing is a more cost-effective solution for prototyping, despite the lower-quality prototypes you will get.

In this guide, you will learn about the cost-effectiveness comparison between CNC and 3D printing, and which one you should use for prototyping.

Why Prototyping Cost-Effectiveness Matters

Does it matter to choose the prototyping method that offers better cost-effectiveness for your company? For big brands, it might not matter a lot, because they only want to use the best prototyping services they can afford. However, for small businesses, it will matter a lot for them to choose a cost-effective prototyping method, for various reasons.

Here are the reasons the cost-effectiveness in your prototyping process matters:

  • Prototyping can be very expensive. Prototyping is a necessary step manufacturers will go through during their production. Even during the prototyping stage, you might need to spend a lot of money to ensure that you can provide the best product for your customers. This is the reason you will need to use a cost-effective solution that can minimize your prototyping costs while maximizing your results.
  • Budget restraint. For companies that have a limited budget to build their prototypes, cost-effectiveness in their prototyping activities will matter the most. Not all companies have an unlimited budget for product research, testing, and quality assurance. So, they need to ensure that the money they spend for prototyping won’t go to waste.
  • More prototype updates mean more expenses for you. When testing your prototype, you will need to determine whether the features and functionalities match with your design requirements and whether they pass your quality checking. If not, you will need to change your prototype and update it with more features and functionalities or fix its errors. The more updates you make for your prototype, the more expenses you will need to spend for it. Thus, cost-effectiveness in prototyping is very important for any industry.
  • Costs of complete prototyping services. The costs of the complete prototyping services, aside from the prototype building costs, can also be very expensive. Keep in mind that when you use a third-party prototyping service, there will be added costs you need to pay, such as packaging and delivery, which can add to more expenses. This is one reason cost-effectiveness is important in prototype building.
  • Profit considerations. How can the prototyping process help you earn more profits in your production? If your prototyping process is a success, then you can come with high-quality products that you can sell to the customers for the best profits. Having a cost-effective prototyping process is often important to ensure that you have a higher ROI (Return on Investment).

Is CNC Prototyping Cost Effective?

When you compare between CNC prototyping and 3D printing, CNC prototyping won’t be as cost-effective as 3D printing. In fact, CNC prototyping can be very expensive if you don’t know how to minimize the costs of manufacturing with this method. However, CNC prototyping offers the prototyping method that will provide better prototype results when compared to 3D printing.

So, the less cost-effectiveness of CNC prototyping will be offset by the plethora of benefits you will get when using this method, such as getting the prototypes that will be closer to the final products in terms of quality, features, functionality, and other aspects. It is the best prototyping method if you want to produce the best prototypes with more flexibility in your design and material selection.

Is 3D Printing Cost Effective?

When compared to the CNC prototyping process, yes, 3D printing offers you the cost-effective prototyping solution you can use to fulfill your prototyping needs. First, the 3D printing equipment itself is quite affordable, unlike the CNC machining equipment that will be very expensive to purchase. Second, the 3D printing materials are also quite cheap, allowing you to use them to 3D print your design and create lightweight prototypes for your product.

3D printing is also easier to operate when compared to CNC prototyping, meaning that you don’t need to deal with all the complexities of the machining processes when you are building a prototype with 3D printing. Overall, this is a preferable low-cost prototyping solution for anyone who wants to design a prototype with acceptable quality and affordable costs.

CNC vs. 3D Printing – Cost-Effectiveness Comparison

  • Equipment cost. 3D printing equipment is a lot cheaper when compared to the CNC machining equipment. You can use 3D printing equipment at home, whereas for CNC prototyping, you will need to prepare a wide area facility to host all the CNC machining equipment, such as CNC milling, turning, cutting, and so on. This is the reason companies prefer to source their CNC prototyping production to CNC machining or complete prototype services instead of using their own equipment.
  • Material cost. You can get cheap 3D printing materials in various retail stores, whether online or offline, as most of the materials used in 3D printing are widely available. The costs for the 3D printing materials are also very affordable, even for hobbyists who just want to complete their small non-commercial projects. Meanwhile, the material workpieces for CNC prototyping are a lot more expensive to purchase, and you can get them only from select manufacturers, factories, or production companies.
  • Cost of labor. You can always operate your own 3D printing equipment by yourself, so there will be very minimal cost of labor when you use this prototyping method. Meanwhile, for CNC prototyping, you will need skilled people to operate the CNC machining equipment, meaning that it will require more labor costs.
  • Cost of fixes and improvements for the prototype. When you need to improve or update your prototype, the cost of reproducing your prototype will be way cheaper with 3D printing. Meanwhile, you will need to spend the same expensive prototyping costs when you need to update or fix your prototype using CNC prototyping.
  • Prototype quality. Despite the lower prototyping costs of 3D printing, you will get a lower prototype quality when compared to the CNC prototyping method. CNC prototyping might be more expensive, but it can provide you with excellent prototype quality, which is best for testing and quality control checking.


For the best budget-friendly prototyping option, you can go for 3D printing, especially if details, accuracy, and quality is not your concern. However, if you want to get better prototype results, with better accuracy, quality, and details, CNC prototyping is your best choice.