Comparison between 3D printing and traditional manufacturing processes for plastics

Initially created as a method for rapid prototyping, 3D printing, which is also referred to as Additive Manufacturing, has grown into a true manufacturing process. 3D printing is giving engineers and companies the ability to both prototype and manufacture end-use products and it offers significant advantages over traditional manufacturing processes. These advantages include enabling mass customization, increasing design freedom, allowing for the reduction of assembly, and can serve as a cost-effective low volume production process.

This page will help you to understand the difference between 3D printing techniques and other manufacturing methods to help you decide which process is best for you. The page has been split into the following categories:

3d printing vs injection molding ebook

3D Printing and Traditional Manufacturing Methods : overview

3D Printing Methods

There are different 3D printing processes : Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Binder Jetting, Stereolithography (SLA), Poly-Jet, Fused Deposition Modelling/Fused Filament Fabrication (FDM/FFF), etc.

To know more about the different 3D printing methods, you can refer to our 3D Printing Processes page .

Traditional Manufacturing Methods

There are four main families of standard manufacturing processes: injection molding, machining, forming, and joining. Similar to 3D printing, each manufacturing process has advantages and limitations. For more information, click on the processes summarized below.

Manufacturing Process Comparison chart

Process Description Details Advantages Disadvantages Applications
Selective Laser Sintering Laser fusion in a powder bed Layers : 0.06-0.15 mm
Features : 0.3mm
Surface : rough
Print speed : fast
Complex parts
Large build volume
Parts can be stacked in build volume
Living hinges and snap features possible
Grainy surface finish Electronics housing
Custom consumer products
Aerospace hardware
Stereolithography UV laser scanning vat polymerization Layers : 0.06-0.15 mm
Features : 0.1mm
Surface : smooth
Print speed : average
Fine detail
Smooth surface finish
Weak parts
Susceptible to sunlight and heat
Medical/dental products
Electronics casings
Investment casting patterns
Binder Jetting Particle binding in a powder bed Layers : 0.089-0.12 mm
Features : 0.4mm
Surface : rough
Print speed : very fast
Multicolor prints
Fast print speed
Very weak parts
Rough surface finish
Full color prototypes and objects
Poly-jet Jetted droplets of UV cross-linked polymer Layers : 0.016-0.032 mm
Features : 0.2mm
Surface : smooth
Print speed : fast
Fine detail
High accuracy
Multi-material capabilities
Low material strength
Susceptible to sunlight and heat
Medical devices
Complex and multi-material prototypes and objects
Assembled prototypes
Fused Deposition Modeling Extruded layers of thermoplastic 0.1-0.3 mm layers
Surface : very rough finish
Print speed : slow
High part strength
Low cost
Poor surface finish
Slow printing
Electronics housing
Custom consumer products
Injection Molding Material mixed and forced into a mold Surface : excellent finish
Tolerance : 50 um
Broad material selection
High volume
High tolerance
Great surface finish
High start-up cost
Long lead time
Thin walled parts only
CNC Machining Material removal Surface : smooth
Tolerance : 25 um
All materials compatible
Very high tolerances
Reasonable turnaround
Difficulty with complexity
High equipment cost
Lot of scrap
Jigs and fixtures
Plastic Forming Stretched and formed plastic sheets Surface : smooth
Tolerance : typical 1mm
Very large parts
Affordable price
Thermoplastics only
Limited shape complexity
Thin walled parts only
One sided control
Plastic Joining Welded or adhered plastic parts Dependent on semi-finished products All materials Time consuming
High labor cost

The above information is non contractual, these are typical specifications for process selection purposes. Actual specifications depend on machine, machine manufacturer, and material selection. It is your responsibility to ensure that the process you choose is adapted to you product.

Selecting the Right Process

To aid in the selection of a manufacturing process that best suits the needs of an application, it is important to first identify your requirements . There are several important questions you must ask yourself when deciding on the appropriate process.

Quantity : how large is the production run?

Traditional manufacturing processes like forming and injection molding are more suitable for large scale manufacture, whereas 3D printing may be more economical for small volumes. The chart below compares the estimated cost per unit of a GoPro handle when manufactured through injection molding (Quickparts) compared to Selective Laser Sintering (Sculpteo). In this case, 3D printing remains an economically valid option for the first 486 units.

price depending on quantity chart

Lead time : how soon do you need your parts?

The traditional manufacturing technologies require molds to be manufactured and factories to be ramped up to speed. As a result, it can take upwards of 15-60 days (and sometimes more) to have the first part in hand. For 3D printing, the part can be printed on demand and shipped without any ramp-up or tooling, resulting in a lead time as short as 2 or 3 days. In the case of the Go Pro handle, Quickparts quotes a lead time of 15 business days for any volume from 25-1000 units, whereas Sculpteo estimates that 25 units with a lead time of 3 days and 1000 units with a lead time of 7 days.

Shape/Complexity : what is your item shape?

For high complexity parts, fully assembled components or parts that need to be customized, using a Professional 3D printer is the best choice. Indeed, the price of such items would be very high and sometimes they would just be not feasible using traditional manufacturing technologies such as molding, machining or forming.

Material selection : what material do you need?

Traditional manufacturing options like injection molding and forming can offer a high material selection. When it comes to 3D printing, the material selection is much sparser. FDM is limited to extrudable thermoplastics, SLS requires thermoplastic powder that is machine specific, and SLA and Poly-jet applications are limited to photo-curable acylate and epoxy-based resins. To learn more about 3D printing materials proposed by Sculpteo, you can refer to our Materials pages .

Technical considerations

As the 3D printing technology matures, greater variety of materials with varying characteristics are being introduced. The chart below introduces a variety of materials and their comparative tensile strength. The legend on the right identifies which technologies are capable of processing that material.

price depending on quantity chart

As the chart shows, thermoplastics such as ULTEM and ABS can be processed by FDM/FFF printing as well as injection molding and forming, demonstrating the ability of 3D printing to process high-strength engineering plastics. However, SLA and poly-jet require photo-curable resins, they cannot process these specific types of materials. To compensate, professional 3D printer manufacturers’ have developed materials to replicate the performance of certain engineering plastics (like Digital ABS and Accura PEAK) and introduce materials exhibit elastomeric properties (such as the Tango Plus and Formlab’s Flexible resins, also represented in the chart above.) However, it’s important to remember that as these resins are photo-sensitive, they tend to be susceptible to sunlight in heat.

3D printing is an additive layer process, which means that surface finish constrained based on the thickness of each added layer. Referring to the Manufacturing Process Reference Chart above, layers can range between 0.06mm to 0.3mm depending on the process, causing the surface to feel rough or “ribbed”, particularly on curved surfaces. High-quality 3D printers tend to print thinner layers than desktop grade printers, resulting in a much better surface finish. Processes like injection molding and plastic forming are much smoother, and can produce desired surface textures as well.

Find the Manufacturing Process that suits you best

For low volume manufacturing, high complexity parts, fully assembled components, parts that need to be customized, or that you simply need your part FAST, using a Professional 3D printer is the best choice. However, if material properties and surface finish are of critical importance, your complexity is low, and your manufacturing volume is low, then CNC machining may be a better option. For high volume manufacturing of relatively simple components, set your aim for a process like injection molding or forming. Still confused? For help selecting the correct process for your application, check out the selection tool below.

SLA SLS Poly-Jet FDM/FFF Binder
CNC Injection
Forming Joining
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right is good, neutral is fair, wrong is poor

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