CNC Machining vs. Injection Molding – A Comprehensive Guide

CNC machine tool processing-CNC Machining vs. Injection Molding

In manufacturing, precision and efficiency are critical. Two technologies are currently at the forefront: CNC machining and injection molding. Each technology possesses unique advantages to meet the needs of different industries. CNC machining offers unmatched precision for custom parts made from many materials. Injection molding provides the efficiency needed for high-volume plastic production. As a professional CNC machining service provider in China, Yonglihao Machinery will take you through the differences between these two technologies to help you better choose the right machining process.

Table of Contents

What is CNC machining?

CNC machining is a manufacturing process with high precision and versatility. The process involves computer control and machine tools. They remove layers from a blank part (a blank or workpiece) to make a custom-designed part or product. This technology applies to many materials: metals, plastics, wood, and composites. It is vital in industries like aerospace, automotive, and medical.

 The most significant advantage of CNC machining is its high accuracy. CNC machines can make parts with tight tolerances and smooth surfaces. This is critical for demanding applications. This accuracy is consistent across many parts. It ensures that both mass-produced and custom projects are uniform. Also, CNC machines are versatile. They can machine many materials with different properties. This gives manufacturers many possibilities for product development. Design flexibility is another major advantage. By changing the CNC program, you can quickly make design changes. You won’t need new tools or set-ups, which saves time and resources.

CNC machining is costlier in high volume than processes like injection molding. This is because of the slow cutting process and the high cost of raw materials. Each part needs to be machined alone. This lengthens the cycle time, especially for complex or finely machined parts.

Despite this, CNC machining is still the top choice. It is for projects needing high precision, material flexibility, and design adaptability. Its benefits make it worth using in many applications.

Process of industrial metal machining of blanks on CNC machine tools using milling cutters with carbide inserts

What is injection molding?

Injection molding is primarily aimed at the processing of plastic parts. In this process, molten material is injected into a mold to form complex shapes with high precision. Now, many industries use it. They include automotive, medical devices, consumer electronics, packaging, and others.

The main advantage of injection molding is its efficiency in high-volume production. Once the initial investment in the mold is made, the cost per part drops a lot. This makes it ideal for high-volume production. Thanks to the precision of the molds. They can produce complex parts and minimize waste. This also increases productivity. Also, short production cycles allow for rapid production of many parts. This results in lower costs and faster delivery to the market.

However, the upfront costs of injection mold design and production are high. Creating a mold can be expensive, especially for complex parts. It’s only worth it if the production volume is high enough to cover the cost. In addition, there is limited design flexibility once the mold has been created. Any big changes to the part design may need a new mold. This not only adds costs but also could delay the project.

 Despite these drawbacks, the advantages of injection molding in terms of scale and efficiency have made it an indispensable process in manufacturing, especially in areas where uniformity and high-volume production are required. Injection molding is preferred in many industries because of its ability to produce parts in large quantities with consistent quality and speed.

Injection moulding equipment is processing parts

 Comparing CNC Machining and Injection Molding

When comparing CNC machining to injection molding, you must consider factors such as tolerance, throughput, cost, mold life, maintenance, design flexibility, complexity, material suitability, and the environment.

Tolerance Levels and Accuracy:CNC machining is widely used for its accuracy and tight tolerances. It can achieve tolerances of ±0.004 in (±0.005 mm) for metals and +/- 0.010 in [0.127 mm] for plastics and composites. This makes it ideal for industries with high precision requirements, such as aerospace and medical devices. Injection molding is precise. It is generally within tolerances of ±0.500 mm (±0.020 in.). This makes it suitable for many applications, but not for ultra-high precision parts.

Volume and Cost Effectiveness: Injection molding stands out in high-volume production. It is cost-effective at scale. In making thousands to millions of parts, the high cost of making the mold is at first significant. But, it becomes negligible, and greatly lowers the cost per part. Conversely, CNC machining is more cost-effective in small to medium-volume production where the high cost of injection molds is not justified. However, for high-volume production, CNC machining is less economical due to higher material and labor costs.

Mold life and maintenance: Moulds have long lives and can make millions of parts. But, they need regular maintenance to keep quality. CNC tools, like cutting tools and fixtures, are simpler and wear out faster. They need replacement more often. But, they cost less than molding tools.

Design Flexibility and Complexity:CNC machining offers more design flexibility. Changes are easy. You just update CAD files and machine programming. Injection molding can make complex shapes and details. But, once the mold is made, it limits design flexibility. Changes are costly and time-consuming.

Material suitability and environmental factors: CNC machining supports a wider range of materials. These include metals, plastics, and composites. It offers versatility in material selection. Injection molding is mainly used for plastic. Advances in eco-friendly, recyclable plastics have addressed environmental concerns. However, CNC machining typically makes more material waste. This is due to its material reduction nature. But, recycling can reduce its environmental impact.

So, the choice between CNC machining and injection molding should depend on the project’s needs. This includes the needed precision, throughput, cost, and material

Automotive plastic parts produced by Yonglihao Machinery

Mutual Alternatives and Complementary Technologies

In addition to CNC machining and injection molding, other technologies such as 3D printing, CNC laser cutting, and thermoforming add to manufacturing. Each technology offers unique advantages and challenges, particularly in terms of accuracy, volume, and cost.

3D Printing Alternatives: 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a layer-by-layer manufacturing of parts based on CAD models and is additive manufacturing. This process excels at creating complex shapes. Traditional methods cannot make these shapes. 3D printing isn’t as fast as injection molding for high-volume production. But, it has unmatched advantages in prototyping and customization. This is because it has low set-up costs and quick turnaround. Accuracy is often high but can vary depending on the technology used (e.g. FDM vs. SLA). In small to medium-volume production, traditional tooling is too expensive. 3D printing is much cheaper.

 The role of CNC laser cutting: CNC laser cutting uses a powerful laser. It cuts materials with precision, speed, and efficiency. It is particularly suitable for cutting thin materials such as sheet metal, plastic, or wood with high precision. It is more suitable for the manufacture of flat parts with complex designs. Laser cutting is cost-effective for medium-volume production with fast turnaround times.

Thermoforming: This process heats a plastic sheet until it is easy to shape. Then, it stretches the sheet over a mold and cools it to form a specific shape. Thermoforming is less accurate than CNC machining but is a cost-effective solution for larger, less complex parts. It is great for large parts, like car door panels. These need less precision than aerospace or medical parts.


When choosing a manufacturing process, Yonglihao Machinery advises that it is important to consider the project’s needs. This includes the needed accuracy, speed, and cost. CNC machining and injection molding are the top choices in manufacturing. They are chosen for their reliability and quality. But, alternative technologies such as 3D printing, CNC laser cutting, and thermoforming are more flexible and efficient. They are so for a variety of applications.


For prototyping, CNC machining is often faster. It uses a direct CAD-to-cut process that removes the need to make a mold. This allows for rapid iteration and modification, making it ideal for developing prototypes where change is frequent and speed is critical.

Part complexity plays an important role in the choice between CNC machining and injection molding. CNC machining can handle complex shapes and fine details. This does not raise the cost or production time. Injection molding can produce complex parts. But, it may need complex and expensive molds. So, before choosing it, make sure the output justifies the cost of the molds. They are less suitable for highly complex designs.

Some materials can be used in both processes. But, due to the nature of the processes, they each have different uses. CNC machining is versatile and can process a wide range of materials, including metals, plastics, and composites. Injection molding, on the other hand, is mainly used for all types of plastics. Some materials for CNC machining aren’t good for injection molding. They are impractical due to their melt or molding properties.

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