Numerous changes have occurred in the manufacturing and machining industry with the advent of technology which eases the manufacturing of high-precision tools with high accuracy and less money using computer numerical control (CNC) technology. Precise translation of shapeless workpieces and complex geometry into parts and components at huge speed is now possible with the aid of CAD/CAM software. Out of all the CNC machines available, manufacturers mostly use the 3-axis and 5-axis CNC machining centers.

The high product turnover rate of 3-axis CNC machine and their versatility are among the numerous reasons why it is found easily in many manufacturing industries. The 3-axis CNC machine carries out its manufacturing processes via three main axes of motion which are the X-axis, Y-axis, and the Z-axis. The movement along the X-axis is left to right, the Y-axis is front to back, and up and down movement for Z-axis. However, apart from having the three axes as present in a 3-axis CNC machine, the 5-axis CNC machine can rotate along two extra axes. Any industry whose manufacturing processes involve the use of high-precision machining usually has the 5-axis CNC machine because it allows for more sophisticated and complex component designs. This guide provides extensive details about the 3-axis and 5-axis CNC machines by focusing on their applications, comparisons, and attributes. 

What is a 3-axis CNC Machining?

A 3 axis machine
A 3 axis machine

One of the most commonly seen machine tools in any manufacturing industry is a 3-axis CNC machine. The movement of the machine along linear axes X-Y-Z confers the name 3-axis for the machine. The direction of these axes are dissimilar such that when the machine moves in the X-axis, it is from left to right, the Y-axis is from front to back, and the Z-axis is from up to down.

The versatility, efficiency, consistency, and accuracy of the 3-axis CNC machine in producing a high volume of components with the aid of cutting tools and less human intervention is why it is among the most used machines during manufacturing processes. The machine enables the production of complex geometries and contours similar to the ones in dies, molds, and numerous machining components. 

Also, there is an increase in production with the use of the 3-axis machine since it can work 24/7 once automated and produce the necessary components with less supervision. Thus, the possibility of errors occurring and the need to rework will greatly reduce and at the same time reduce the time and resources used for manufacturing.

The working principle of the 3-axis machine is automatic such that once the operator inputs the necessary information into a computer, it carries out the task by cutting from left to right, front to back, and up and down, or through the X, Y, and Z axes. Examples of 3-axis machines are CNC turning and CNC milling although the way the two machines work differs a little bit. The material block on a machine bed or in a vice remains fixed when using a 3-axis CNC milling. The accurate formation of the final part occurs after connecting the rotating drills or cutting tools to a spindle to remove shavings by moving along the X, Y, and Z axes. For the production of various geometries and simple components, 3-axis CNC milling machines are a wise choice.

However, the lathe shapes the parts after connecting the material to a rotating spindle in the CNC turning process. Unlike in 3-axis CNC milling, the spindle rotates and when it does, holes are created along the center axis of the material, or the inner and outer perimeters of the parts are traced with a central drill or cutting tool. Also, the rate of producing parts in CNC lathe turning machines is quicker at a lesser production cost making it suitable for high-volume manufacturing processes.

Non-conventional shapes or designs that have deep, narrow cavities which are not easy to reach, may be difficult to handle with a 3-axis CNC machine the cutting only occurs along three axes. There will be a need for the operator to reposition the materials manually when producing parts from complex geometries which inadvertely increases the time spent on production. The cost of labor and machining also increases and the final products may be less than perfect.

What are the Applications of a 3-axis CNC Machining?

The versatility, accuracy, and efficiency of the 3-axis CNC increase its usage in various sectors that modern manufacturing and prototyping industries need to possess. The automotive industry, aerospace industry, medical/health industry, construction industry, and arts and crafts are among the industries where the machine is applicable. 

High-precision manufacturing of components such as engine parts or custom modifications is possible with the 3-axis CNC milling machines in the automotive industry. Any small error in the details of the components in this industry can lead to a huge disaster thus, the need to use machines that are consistent in the production of quality parts.

The aerospace industry requires complex shapes and critical parts that are manufactured with 3-axis CNC machines. The CNC machine is very suitable in this industry because of its close tolerance level which is needed for complex aerospace components. The safety and performance of the aircraft depend on the components thus, it is essential to ensure consistency in reproducing parts.

In the medical/health sector, it is possible to create medical devices and surgical instruments using 3-axis CNC machines. The impact of 3-axis CNC in the manufacturing of prosthetic limbs and orthotic devices cannot be over-emphasized. Lack of precision can harm the health and recovery of patients, therefore, making the machine a critical and must-have due to its accuracy.

The 3-axis machining allows the accurate cutting of wood, glass, metal, and other construction elements in the construction industry. Generating customized pieces of high quality that will fit perfectly into specialized structures or designs is now possible.

Creating imprecise designs, especially on delicate jewelry pieces or sculptures is now a thing of the past for artists due to the presence of the high precision machine. 

All the abovementioned sectors experienced a reduction in waste and increased productivity since the advent of the 3-axis CNC machines due to their precision, consistency, and repeatability of results. Different components that seem impossible to produce with manual machining techniques are now being produced with ease using CNC. The sectors that use 3-axis CNC machines will increase as technology advances.

What is a 5-axis CNC Machining?

A 5 axis cnc machine
A 5 axis cnc machine

There is another CNC machine that operates along five axes at the same time known as the 5-axis CNC machine whose name connotes the number of axes it contains. In addition to the three axes X, Y, and Z present in the 3-axis CNC machine, it has the A-axis and B-axis to make it five axes altogether. Unlike the X, Y, and Z axes which are linear, the A and B axes rotate such that there is a rotation of the material around the X and Y axes. The precision of the geometry increases together with a wider range of motion by the addition of the rotational ability. Also, sometimes instead of the movement of the machine to the B-axis, it can move to the C-axis. This occurs when the material rotates around the linear Z-axis instead of the Y-axis. The reduction in the setup time is a primary merit of using 5-axis CNC machines. 

The 5-axis CNC machines do not require manual repositioning of the materials by the operators for different operations because they work automatically. This tends to greatly minimize human and increase the total efficiency of the production process. Just with a setup the 5-axis CNC machines can produce complex components due to their advanced abilities thereby leading to an increase in productivity and reduced lead times. Since the 5-axis machines require moving in five different directions, they need a tool that can move along the linear axes X, Y, and Z, and rotational axes A and B. During a single operation, approaching a component from all directions is possible with the 5-axis CNC machine thus, there will not be a need to reposition the material manually between operations. 

Sectors such as oil and gas, aerospace, and medical that require the use of complex and precise parts use 5-axis CNC machining due to its high precision and ability to save time. Mill-turning CNC centers indexed 5-axis CNC machines, and continuous 5-axis CNC machines are some examples of the different kinds of 5-axis machines available. There is also a slight difference in the way each of these machines works.

The way the indexed 5-axis CNC machining works resembles that of the 3-axis CNC milling such that the movement of the cutting tool is along three axes and the contact between the tool and the material is not continuous. However, when the operations are ongoing there is a possibility of automatic swiveling of the machining table and tool head in two directions. This machining is suitable for producing fixtures, jigs, and housings. The capability of the machining to handle complex geometries falls someplace between the continuous 5-axis CNC machining and the 3-axis CNC milling same as its precision and speed.

When an operation is ongoing, rotation and movement of the cutting tool and the material can occur at the same time with continuous 5-axis CNC machining. This enables the manufacturing of intricate geometries with organic surfaces and saves time. Out of the 5-axis machines, the continuous 5-axis CNC machining has the highest cost per unit although the dimensional stability, speed, and surface finish improve. 

The presence of CNC milling equipment is the one thing that differentiates the turning mill CNC centers from the CNC turning machines since the two are practically similar. The motion of the spindle can either be fixed or rotational when it gets attached to the material which is later removed from the spindle with the cutting tools. Camshafts, centrifugal compressors, and other components with loose rotational symmetries are obtainable using the mill-turning CNC centers derived from the combination of the CNC lathe machine elements with milling tools. The geometric versatility and the level of accuracy mill-turning CNC centers provide are high. 5-axis CNC milling machines increase the yields and machining speeds although they require specialized equipment and expert workers therefore making them more expensive.

What are the Applications of 5-axis CNC Machining?

The contribution of the 5-axis CNC machine cut across numerous industries. In the aerospace industry, high precision is paramount which is impossible to produce unless there are an additional number of axes to manufacture them same as when dealing with complex shapes. 5-axis CNC machines provide the extra number of axes option for the manufacturers thus creating complex shapes and angles in aero-engine airframes or parts.

Prototypes, custom components, and engine parts with intricate designs are created with the 5-axis CNC machines in the automotive industry without which the accurate production of detailed automotive parts and high-performance vehicles will not be an easy task.

The precision 5-axis CNC machines provide is of benefit to the medical industry since many of the medical equipment requires precision. The ability of these machines to be used to manufacture organic shapes and complex highly specialized parts led to the creation of orthopedic implants and other medical equipment.

In the energy sector, 5-axis CNC machining also has applications where it is used to create turbine components. The wind turbines will not function optimally unless it is manufactured with a CNC machine that can accurately and consistently produce precision-crafted components.

These are only a few examples of how 5-axis CNC milling machines contribute across various industries. Their ability to machine complex shapes and close-tolerance parts makes them essential equipment in high-standard manufacturing or production.

Comparison between 3-Axis Machining vs. 5-Axis Machining

CNC opt laser
CNC opt laser

Although both 3-axis machining and 5-axis machining are used in high-standard manufacturing or production due to their capabilities to machine complex shapes and close-tolerance parts, they have certain differences. These differences include:

Differences 3-Axis Machining5-Axis Machining
Range of Movement 3-axis CNC machine possesses three axes and the movement is in the X, Y, and Z linear axes which is suitable for a wide variety of components.5-axis machining possesses five axes. It also operate the same way but have additional two axes, A and B that enable rotational movement thus, allowing the rotation of the cutting tool or workpiece around the X and Y axes respectively.
Complexity of Partsif you intend to manufacture simpler components and designs, the suitable choice of machining is the 3-axis machine.5-axis machining is more suitable for the manufacturing of complex geometry or one with a deeper component because it does not require manual rotation therefore, the machining can be done from all sides. Also, there is an increase in the yield, accuracy, and freedom of movement. The time taken in manufacturing larger components with 5-axis machining reduces and the added complexity enables manufacturing of more complex parts with intricate geometries.
Ease of complex shape creation3-axis machining can be use to create and manipulate complex shapes. However, cutting complex geometry with a 3-axis machine requires many adjustments.Creating and manipulating complex shapes is easier with 5-axis machining. It provides deep cuts in complex geometries and enables working on all side of the material without the need to rotate it manually.
ProgrammingIt is easier to program 3-axis machines. This, the amount paid for the programming is lesser.Programming 5-axis machining is more sophisticated and higher amount is paid.
Production speed and efficiencyThe production speed and efficiency of 3-axis Machining is lesser.The ability of the 5-axis CNC machines to machine multiple sides of a component with just a setup gives it an edge over 3-axis machines in completing tasks faster. Thus, the total efficiency of the 5-axis machines will be more than the 3-axis machines.

Choosing the Appropriate CNC Machine for Your Needs

Various factors need to be taken into consideration when selecting the appropriate CNC machine based on your needs. Although you can easily get the best option for you by contacting a good rapid prototyping company, here are some factors you can consider yourself;

Assess Your Production Needs

Assessing your production needs is the first factor you need to consider when choosing between 3-axis and 5-axis machines. 3-axis machines are the most appropriate machining if what you are manufacturing in a single setup are simpler components that do not need multi-sided machining. The 5-axis CNC machine is the right tool if what you are manufacturing in a single setup requires multi-sided machining and complex parts with intricate details.

Consider Your Budget

The cost of obtaining and maintaining a 5-axis CNC machine is higher than that of a 3-axis CNC machine. Thus, you need to factor in your budget when choosing the best CNC machines for you. However, you should also take into consideration if you will be dealing with complex projects, the efficiency of the 5-axis machine on a long-term basis.

Evaluate Your Workforce Skills

Since the 5-axis CNC machine requires more advanced programming than the 3-axis machines, the level of skill required is higher. Therefore, there may be a need to spend additional money on hiring an experienced expert or investing in the training of your workforce if their skills are lacking.


The major mistake some manufacturers usually make when buying either a 3-axis CNC machine or a 5-axis CNC machine is not considering the suitability for their needs. Although both machines can do almost the same thing, there are some differences in their mode of work and the accuracy of their outputs. Regardless of the one you obtain between the two, your outputs and efficiency will improve significantly. 

You need to consider many factors such as your budget, workforce skills, and production needs when choosing the right machining tool. Likewise, operating these tools requires experienced expert personnel. However, if selecting the appropriate machining seems a daunting task, you can always use professional services. Zintilon’s CNC machining has capable professionals on deck 24/7 who can resolve your dilemma.


What can a 5-axis CNC do?

A 5-axis CNC is capable of crafting intricate shapes that involve various angles and curves. By maneuvering the cutting tool along five different axes, it achieves enhanced surface smoothness and greater precision in the produced components. Additionally, this type of CNC machine excels in continuous milling, allowing the cutting tool to seamlessly trace the material’s curves, resulting in fewer imperfections and steps in the finished product.

Is the 3-axis CNC a good starter investment than the 5-axis CNC?

Absolutely! The cost of purchasing and maintaining 3-axis CNC is cheaper than that of 5-axis CNC thus, making it a good starting investment.

What are the main industries that use 3-axis and 5-axis CNC machines?

The usage of the two machines cut across numerous industries but the major ones are healthcare, aerospace, manufacturing, and automotive.

Is it possible to upgrade a 3-axis CNC machine to a 5-axis?

Although upgrading a 3-axis CNC machine to a 5-axis CNC machine is possible, the downside is the complexity and the huge amount of money required. Therefore, it is advisable to buy a 5-axis CNC machine if it is a production requirement.

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