3 axis vs 5 axis CNC | A Comprehensive Comparison

CNC machines are shaping our future and evolving in this process. Better machines enable complex design production but at higher costs. In this trade-off, we bring a 3 axis vs 5 axis CNC machine comparison for you to decide better.

Why Are CNC Machines So Important?

Aerospace, automotive, and even medical, any industry you can name, is currently challenging the current CNC setup. As all industries evolve. They develop more complex product designs using new materials to achieve better results.

These complex designs and new materials need better, more complex CNC machines. They offer quality production but at an increased cost. So, for a manufacturer, it's a trade-off between cost and manufacturing abilities. To be on top of this business, they have to balance both.

So, we bring you a comprehensive comparison of a 3 axis vs 5 axis CNC machine. Enabling you to know, compare, and decide what type of CNC machine would be better for your business.

What Does the Axis of a CNC Machine Mean?

Before a comparison, to know what a 5 axis CNC machine and a 3 axis CNC machine are. The axis of a machine means the directions in which a machine tool or table can move. It's also known as the degree of freedom of a machine.

So, a five axis CNC machine can move or rotate its tool or table in five directions. A 5 axis CNC machine can move its tool or table in three linear and two rotational directions. At the same time, a 3 axis CNC machine can move its tool or table in only three linear directions.

Comparing 3 axis vs 5 axis CNC Machines

Comparing 3 axis vs 5 axis CNC machines is more than just understanding the axis of the machine. It's more about machine working, capabilities, efficiency, and cost of operation.

Working with 3-axis and 5-axis CNC Machines

If we consider a 3 axis milling machine and a 5 axis milling machine for comparison, the working of both machines are similar. Both 3 axis and 5 axis milling machines have a rotating tool that cuts a workpiece mounted on the machine table. 

The table movement makes a difference in the operation of a 3 axis versus a 5 axis milling machine. In a 3 axis milling machine, the table can linearly move in three axes. It can move left & right, forward & backward, and up & down concerning the tool.

In a 5 axis milling machine, the table can move in all three directions. In addition to that, it can also rotate along two axes called the axis of rotation of the table. That makes the table move in a total of five directions.

So, in working, a 3 axis milling machine is simpler than a 5 axis milling machine. At the same time, the range of operation of 5 axis milling machines is greater than that of 3 axis milling machines.

Ease in Operating a CNC Machine

If we consider the operation of a CNC machine, the operating procedure of both machines is almost similar. Both machines need a computer numeric code called G and M codes for operation.

The coding tells the machine how fast to rotate its tool and how to move its table. A 3 axis CNC machine only needs instructions to move tables in three axes. Whereas the 5 axis CNC machine needs codes to instruct table movement in five axes.

So, operating a 3 axis milling machine seems easier than a 5 axis milling machine. The code needed for 3 axis machines is simpler and easier to develop than for a 5 axis machine.

It is necessary to mention that with software that generates CNC codes from product CAD models. The process of developing the G and M codes is simplified.

Capabilities of 3-axis vs 5-axis CNC

If we consider the ability of a machine to manufacture a complicated design. Complicated designs of products have very complex features. Thus, they need machines that can execute a series of operations to machines that design.

In this perspective, a 5 axis milling machine can execute more complex designs. A 5 axis CNC can move its table in three axes at the same time. It can move its table up while making it to the left and also rotating it.

These features of the 5 axis CNC machine truly enable it to execute some very complex and hard-to-machine designs. Compared to this, a 3 axis CNC machine only moves its table in two directions. It can move its table upward while making it move left.

So, the capabilities of a 5 axis CNC machine are better and more capable than a 3 axis CNC machine.

Accuracy in Machining Products

If we consider the ability of the machine to manufacture a product with highly accurate dimensions. Then both machines can deliver products with highly accurate dimensions. The difference here lies in the complexity of the design.

If the product design is moderately complex, then both 3 axis milling machines and 5-axis milling machines can deliver the same accuracy. If the design is very complex and needs machining of material at several angles to get the required features. Then the 5 axis CNC machine will give better accuracy than the 3 axis CNC machine. 

The reason is that there are two more rotational axes available to the 5 axis CNC. That allows it to machine features in a better, more accurate, and efficient manner when compared to a 3 axis machine.

It is important here to mention that the accuracy of the machine depends a lot on the machine's brand, maintenance, and labor coding skills. It also partially depends on the product material type and cutting tool condition.

Maintenance of CNC Machines

Every machine has maintenance requirements, and so do CNC machines. In this regard, if we consider the number of mechanisms and how the machine moves, it becomes obvious that the 5 axis CNC machine has more mechanisms. Its parts have greater degrees of freedom, and its table can move and rotate in complex ways.

In a 3 axis CNC machine, there are only three main mechanisms. Its table has a limitation of linear degrees of freedom, and it can only move in three directions linearly. So, a 3 axis milling machine is a bit simpler than the 5 axis milling.

Due to this, we can assume that the maintenance requirements of a 5 axis machine could be more than a 3 axis machine. Note that the actual maintenance requirements of a machine depend on its make and model.

One specific CNC machine model or brand might have higher maintenance requirements than another.

Cost-Effectiveness of Projects

In the CNC machining business, the cost at which a manufacturer can machine and deliver a product is important. If a business does not offer competitive rates compared to the market, it will be difficult for them to get continuous work.

In the CNC machining industry, the cost of the project includes the initial investment, operational cost, material cost, and delivery cost. For any given project, material and delivery costs do not depend on the machine type and work.

Considering the initial investment involved, it can be clearly said that any 5 axis CNC machine would be more expensive than a 3 axis machine. This is because 5 axis machines are bigger and more complex. These machines need very complex and dedicated electronics. They also have very complex software specifically made for them.

Regarding the operation cost of the machine or any specific project, this cost will be the most important one because it affects every product you make. Unlike the initial setup cost that reduces as the number of products increases, the process cost is calculated for each product because it involves labor hours.

5 axis CNC machines and their operations are more complex, so they need operators with better skills. So, the labor cost to run a 5 axis milling machine will be more than the 3 axis milling. A 5 axis CNC might need less time to machine a product. So, it also depends on the design of the product.

So, from a general perspective, a 5 axis CNC machine operation can cost more than a 3 axis machine. The overall cost of the project will depend on several other factors.

Concluding 3 axis vs 5 axis CNC Comparison

Based on the above-made comparison, it can be said that 5 axis CNC machines are better in terms of their ability to work, process complex designs, and accuracy. At the same time, a 3 axis CNC is easier to operate and might deliver simpler products at a lower cost.

So, it's better to understand your needs and set your priorities keeping in view the comparison we have just delivered.