The CNC machine has revolutionized metalworking. The manufacturing process used to take days and is now completed in minutes. Different CNC-based machines are out and helping the manufacturers. However, 3-axis vs. 5-axis CNC machines have been a hot topic for discussion.


Both are suitable for various applications, but which one is better? Interestingly, both machines offer the same functionality but with different efficiencies. People often get confused between the two, but they have their specific pros and cons. This guide will provide you with detailed insight into these two CNC machines. So, let’s get started! 


Overview of 3-Axis and 5-Axis CNC Machine

Overview of 3 Axis and 5 Axis CNC Machine

Both 3-axis and 5-axis machines are used in the manufacturing process. They cut, shape, drill, or precisely shave the workpiece. Both of them utilize cutting tools for their work. The computerized system or software controls those tools. 


In a 3-axis machine, tools can move in three directions: i-e, X, Y, and Z. The 5-axis CNC machines allow the tools to move in five directions or axes. The tools’ X, Y, and axis movement is standard in both machines. However, tilting and rotational movement are additional in 5-axis CNC machines.


A 5-axis machine has more axes to move to cut materials of any shape. No matter how complex or intricate a design is, this machine can easily create it. The counterpart 3-axis machine is straightforward. It cannot cut or shape the material in complex designs. Despite many pros, the 5-axis is super expensive.


Working Mechanism of 3-Axis and 5-Axis CNC Machines


The 3-axis CNC machine holds the material steady. The cutting tools attached to the spindle move in different directions to cut the material. Those cutting can be anything, such as mills, lathes, routers, and grinders. The movement of these tools in 3 directions will shape the material.


It is important to note that the tools move as per computerized instructions fed to the machine. The design (CAD) of the required shape is made. After that, the engineers convert this design into programmed instructions. These sets of instructions in the form of codes are fed to the machines.


As a result, the cutting tools follow these instructions. In the 5-axis CNC machine, the material is placed on the rotary table. The cutting tools move in three directions, like in a 3-axis machine. However, the rotary table can rotate and tilt. The rotation of the table offers two additional directions for tools. 


The workpiece comes under the tools due to the movement of the rotary table. The 5-axis machine can easily cut the material from any angle and create complex shapes. However, 3-axis machines are limited in terms of cutting designs. Both of these machines require coded information as an instruction.


Differences Between 3-Axis vs. 5-Axis CNC Machines

Differences Between 3-Axis vs. 5-Axis CNC Machines

You have got a basic understanding of these machines. However, many fundamental differences separate them from each other. Understanding those distinctions is necessary if you want to make a buying decision. Let’s go down and discuss all of their significant dissimilarities in detail.


1- Programming Complexity


The 3-axis CNC machines are effortless and straightforward. Their code of instructions is also very simple. It is easier for engineers to create the design and convert it into code form. The engineers should have basic knowledge of G-code to operate this machine.


On the contrary, 5-axis CNC machining is complex. They require specialized programming skills because there are more axes involved in movement. For example, some machines use M-code along with G-code for their operation. In terms of programming, the 5-axis machines are technical.


2- Setup Duration & Complexity


The 3-axis machine takes more time to set up. Especially when making complex shapes, you’ll have to adjust the workpiece repeatedly. This will take a lot of time to complete the task. However, this machine takes less time for simple tasks. 


The reason is that workpieces don’t need to be adjusted when dealing with simple tasks. The 5-axis machines are straightforward to set up. They don’t require continuous change in the position of the workpiece. Once you place the material, switch on the machine. You’ll get your task done with ease.


This is due to the movement of cutting tools in many directions. Let’s discuss the complexity of the machines. Interestingly, the 3-axis CNC machines are not complex. Labor with mild experience can efficiently operate them. However, 5-axis machines are very complicated. They require very skills and experience as operators.


3- Labour Cost & Flexibility


As I said earlier, the 3-axis machines are conventional. Their operation does not require special skills from labor. As they have been used for years, everyone is well aware of them. Any worker with some experience can run such machines. They require less labor, so you won’t have to hire specialists.


The 5-axis machines are very complex. They require skilled labor with related expertise. Therefore, you’ll have to hire a specific labor, adding the labor cost. However, they can create any complex shape with ease. Whatever design you give it, this machine will provide you with an exact prototype. So, it is very flexible, which is its prominent feature.


4- Performance & Efficiency 


Two attributes can judge the performance of these CNC machines. The first is the turnaround duration, and the second is the precision. In both of these terms, the 5-axis machine has the upper hand. This machine can provide you with a complex shape in no time. 


However, the 3-axis machine takes a lot of time. The operator must readjust the workpiece many times to complete the task. So, you get a better turnaround with the 5-axis. As far as the precision is concerned, both machines are equally good. 


Quick Note: The 5-axis CNC machine offers better efficiency than its counterpart. Therefore, established manufacturers who work on a large scale use these machines. 3-axis machines are for small manufacturers.


5- Durability & Longevity


3-axis machines are considered more durable. The reason is that they are not very complex and have fewer parts. Therefore, maintaining these machines is relatively more straightforward. They don’t show massive wear and tear regularly. 


Even if they have any issues, local workers can fix them. Conversely, the 5-axis CNC machine is usually more prone to wear and tear. This is due to their complex parts and components. Their maintenance cost is also high, which is another drawback.


6- Cost & Affordability


This is one of the most potent factors that dictate the decision-making process. The 3-axis CNC machines are inexpensive. Conversely, the 5-axis machines are costly. Buying them requires a large budget, a massive hindrance for many people.


The question is: which one should you buy? I recommend purchasing a 3-axis machine if you are a small manufacturer with lower needs. However, the 5-axis machine should be preferred for precision and quick turnaround. 


Limitations of 3-Axis And 5-Axis CNC Machine

Limitations of 3-Axis And 5-Axis CNC Machine

There is no doubt that both of these machines are excellent. However, the pros and cons make them suitable for different applications. Let’s discuss the limitations of both machines.


Limitations of 3-Axis CNC Machine


  • First of all, this machine has very limited functionality. Its cutting tools can move in 3 directions only. Therefore, it cannot cut every shape. It fails to perform when you need complex designs.
  • It requires multiple tools when it comes to cutting complex shapes. You will have to buy those tools separately. They will add cost.
  • During work, you will have to change tools again and again to get the required shape. This will not only reduce efficiency but also increase the production duration.
  • 3-axis machines are enormous. They require a lot of space, which is another drawback. Its bigger size makes it a challenge for small manufacturers to accommodate it.
  • This machine is also not suitable for high-precision applications. The reason is that you will have to change the tools and adjust the workpiece multiple times. Due to this, minor errors can occur.


Limitations of 5-Axis CNC Machine

  • One of the prominent drawbacks of this machine is its higher cost. It would be hard for small manufacturers to afford this.
  • This machine is very complicated. Its working mechanism is very sophisticated. Therefore, you will require dedicated and highly skilled operators for its operations.
  • The maintenance cost of 5-axis CNC machines is relatively high. It is prone to wear and tear. This is due to its complexity and the number of components involved.


Applications of 3-Axis & 5-Axis CNC Machine


The usage of 3-axis and 5-axis CNC machines has spread across various industries. It won’t be wrong to say that CNC machining has seen a boom in the recent past. These machines, from aerospace to the medicine industry, serve a utility in every field.  Here is the detailed table showing the application of these two CNC machines:


Applications of 3-axis Machines Applications of 5-axis Machines
Used in flat surfaces, drilling, and basic contouring Used in the defense industry to make weapons and their components
Used in machining blades for gas and steam turbines Helpful in creating complex molds for plastic injection molding
Primarily Used in Engraving and sign making. Used for laptop chassis and phone housing.
Used in electronic parts and housings Used to make sculptures and jewelry
Used in woodworking to make panels, furniture, and decorative pieces Used in medical devices such as prosthetics and orthotic devices
Automotive industry to make engine brackets, custom plates, and mounting fixtures Aerospace industry to make aircraft components and engine parts


No doubt a 5-axis machining center has many pros. However, it is the fact that the 3-axis is most famous. Its usability is more extensive than that of 5-axis CNC machines. The reason is that it is simple and inexpensive. Everyone can afford to maintain this machine more easily. 


Can a 3-axis Machine be Upgraded to a 5-axis Machine? 


Yes, It is possible to upgrade the 3-axis machine to a 5-axis. However, you’ll have to make massive modifications to the machines. This will be done through CNC machining experts. Moreover, it is super costly, which is also a hindrance.


For modification, you must consult a custom CNC Machining Services provider. They will check the condition of your machine and give you the right advice. However, the question is: Do I recommend such alterations and modifications? The answer is NO! 


The reason is that such modified 3-axis machines do not offer as good precision as you get with the new 5-axis. Moreover, the process of modification is costly as well. I recommend buying a new 5-axis instead of modifying or upgrading the old one.


Quick Tip: If you are on a low budget, you can sell your old 3-axis machines. Many manufacturers require those 3-axis machines, so they will quickly buy your old one. This will help you increase your budget significantly. You can find buyers through social media platforms.


Frequently Asked Questions


What are the advantages of 3-axis CNC machining?


The 3-axis machines are easy to operate and don’t require skilled labor. Above all, they are very affordable, which is a big thing for small manufacturers.


How does the programming differ between 3-axis and 5-axis CNC machines? 


5-axis CNC programming is more complex and technical. It requires advanced CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) software and more skilled programmers. The programming for the 3-axis machine is relatively simple, just like the machine itself is easy to operate.


What are the advantages of 5-axis CNC machining? 


This machine is very good at creating complex shapes and designs. It has a rotary table that can rotate and tilt, providing two additional directions for cutting. So, it is more advanced than the 3-axis machining.




Are you in a rabbit hole while selecting between the 3-axis and 5-axis CNC machines? Don’t worry, as this guide has the solution. Both of these machines have their pros and cons. The selection depends on your needs, budget, and expertise.


3-axis machines are a good option for small manufacturers. They don’t require a high budget, which is a massive advantage. On the flip side, 5-axis machines are only suitable for established businesses.  They are best for complex and high-precision applications.

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