An In-Depth Look

14 Jun 2024
7 mins
3D Printing vs. Injection Molding

This article compares 3D printing vs injection molding in terms of their definition, material, product properties and applications.


3D printing and injection molding are two key methods for creating plastic parts. 3D printing excels in prototyping and customization, while injection molding dominates high-volume production.

Understanding 3D Printing

Explanation of 3D Printing Technology

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a revolutionary technology that creates physical objects from a digital design. Unlike traditional subtractive manufacturing (think carving a statue from a block of wood), 3D printing builds objects layer by layer, adding material until the final shape is complete.

Types of 3D Printing Processes

There are several popular 3D printing processes, each suited to different applications and materials.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

This is the most widely used 3D printing technology. It works by extruding a heated filament (typically plastic) through a nozzle, depositing it layer by layer to build the object.

FDM offers good affordability, a wide range of materials like ABS and PLA, and is great for prototyping and functional parts. However, the surface finish can be rough compared to other techniques.

Stereolithography (SLA)

SLA uses a laser beam to cure liquid resin layer by layer, creating highly detailed and smooth-surfaced prints.

It's ideal for creating high-precision prototypes, jewelry, and dental models. However, SLA resins can be more expensive than FDM filaments and require careful handling due to their often-toxic nature.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS uses a laser beam to sinter (fuse) powdered materials like nylon or metal.

This process offers excellent durability and is suitable for creating functional parts that can withstand high temperatures and loads. However, SLS printers are generally more expensive than FDM or SLA machines.

Selective Laser Melting (SLM) / Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

SLM or DMLS utilizes a high-powered laser to meticulously fuse metallic powder particles layer by layer.

This technique builds incredibly strong and complex metal parts, ideal for applications demanding high strength-to-weight ratio, intricate internal features, and compatibility with various metals like titanium, aluminum, and stainless steel.

Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)

MJF takes a unique inkjet approach to 3D printing high-resolution nylon parts. It employs two jets: one selectively glues nylon powder particles together, while the other refines the surface for exceptional detail.

This innovative process delivers parts that are not only visually appealing with smooth finishes but also functionally strong, making them suitable for a wider range of applications beyond just prototypes.


PolyJet boasts high-precision inkjet technology, meticulously building objects layer by layer with UV-curable liquid photopolymer resin.

This technique unlocks various material properties, from rigid and transparent options to biocompatible and heat-resistant resins. PolyJet excels at producing parts with exceptional accuracy, intricate details, and smooth surfaces.

Explanation of Injection Molding

Definition of Injection Molding

Injection molding is a high-volume and formative manufacturing process that utilizes a pre-made mold to create identical plastic parts. This formative mold, essentially a negative of the desired final product, shapes the molten plastic as it cools and solidifies, ensuring consistent and rapid production.

Injection Molding Process

  1. Mold Creation: A crucial first step is building the mold, typically made of steel or aluminum. It consists of two main parts: the cavity that defines the shape of the final product and the core that creates internal features (like holes).

  2. Material Preparation: Plastic resin pellets are fed into a hopper.

  3. Melting and Injection: The pellets are heated and melted inside a barrel equipped with a screw. This screw mixes and pressurizes the molten plastic. Once ready, the screw pushes the plastic through a nozzle at high pressure.

  4. Mold Filling: The molten plastic is injected into the clamped mold cavity through a sprue (main channel), runners (distribution channels), and finally the gate (entry point into the cavity).

  5. Cooling and Solidification: Cooling channels within the mold circulate a coolant (water or oil) to rapidly solidify the plastic into its desired shape.

  6. Ejection: Once cooled, the mold opens, and ejector pins push the finished part out. The mold then closes, and the cycle repeats.

Types of Injection Molding

While the core process remains similar, there are variations in injection molding depending on the material and desired part complexity.

Thermoplastics Injection Molding

This is the most widely used type, suitable for a vast range of thermoplastics like polypropylene (used in bottle caps) and ABS (Legos).

Thermoplastics can be reheated and remolded, making them ideal for high-volume production.

Thermoset Injection Molding

This process uses thermosetting resins that undergo a permanent chemical reaction during molding.

They cannot be remelted and are typically used for parts requiring high heat resistance or electrical insulation. Examples include engine components and electrical housings.

3D Printing vs. Injection Molding: Material Selection

Choosing the right material is crucial for both 3D printing and injection molding.

Material Variety

3D Printing

Offers a wider variety of materials compared to injection molding. This includes not just plastics (ABS, PLA, nylon) but also metals (titanium, aluminum), ceramics, and even biomaterials.

Injection Molding

Primarily focuses on thermoplastics for their ability to be melted and re-molded during the process. While there are some thermoset options, the selection is more limited.

Material Compatibility

3D Printing

Compatibility can vary depending on the specific printing process. For example, FDM works well with common plastics like ABS and PLA, while SLA requires specialized resins.

Injection Molding

Has a higher barrier to entry for new materials. Molds need to be specifically designed for the thermal and flow properties of the chosen plastic. This makes experimenting with new materials more expensive and time-consuming.

Customization Options

3D Printing

Can easily modify the digital design and print parts with unique features, gradients, or even videoded electronics. This makes it ideal for prototypes and low-volume production runs with specific needs.

Injection Molding

Limited in customization. The mold dictates the final part shape, and changes require significant modifications or even rebuilding the mold entirely. This makes it less suitable for one-off or constantly evolving designs.

Factor3D PrintingInjection Molding
Material VarietyPlastics: ABS, PLA, nylon
Metals: titanium, aluminum
Thermoplastics: polypropylene, ABS
Material CompatibilityVaries by process (e.g., FDM works with ABS/PLA, SLA requires specific resins)High barrier to entry for new materials (molds need specific design)
Customization OptionsHighly customizable (modify design, features, gradients, videoded electronics)Limited customization (mold dictates shape, changes require mold modification)

3D Printing vs. Injection Molding: Material Selection

3D Printing vs. Injection Molding: Product Properties

Mechanical Properties

Mechanical Strength

  • 3D Printing: Strength can vary depending on the printing process, material, and infill density (how much solid material is used within the printed part). Generally, 3D printed parts are weaker than injection molded parts due to the layer-by-layer construction.

  • Injection Molding: Produces parts with superior mechanical strength due to the uniform and dense material structure achieved through high pressure and temperature. This makes them ideal for applications requiring high loads or stress.


  • 3D Printing: Similar to strength, stiffness can vary depending on the factors mentioned above. Some materials like nylon offer good stiffness, but overall, 3D printed parts may exhibit more flex compared to injection molded counterparts.

  • Injection Molding: Produces parts with higher stiffness due to the denser material structure. This is crucial for components needing to maintain their shape under pressure.


  • 3D Printing: Durability can vary based on the material and printing process. Some materials like metals offer good durability, but parts can be susceptible to wear and tear depending on the application.

  • Injection Molding: Generally produces more durable parts due to the denser material structure and wider range of high-performance thermoplastics available. This makes them suitable for long-lasting products.

Dimensional Accuracy

  • 3D Printing: Accuracy can vary depending on the printer and printing process. FDM printers may have limitations due to filament width and layer thickness. SLA and SLS can achieve higher accuracy.

  • Injection Molding: Offers excellent dimensional accuracy due to the precise nature of the mold. Parts are consistently replicated within tight tolerances.


  • 3D Printing: Thrives in complex geometries. The layer-by-layer approach allows for intricate designs with internal channels, overhangs, and even internal moving parts.

  • Injection Molding: Can handle complex shapes, but there are limitations. Undercuts or very fine features can be challenging to create due to mold design and removal considerations.

3D Printing vs. Injection Molding: Cost Analysis

When choosing between 3D printing and injection molding, cost is a major factor.

Factor3D PrintingInjection Molding
Initial Setup CostsRelatively low (printer & software)Very high (mold design & machining)
Production VolumeLess cost-effective for low volumes (time & material)Highly cost-effective for high volumes
Material CostsCan be higher (filament/resin)Lower (bulk plastic pellets)
Labor CostsGenerally lower (automated/semi-automated printing)May involve more setup, operation, & quality control
Waste and EfficiencyCan generate support structure & failed print wasteMinimizes waste (recyclable leftover plastic)

3D Printing vs. Injection Molding: Cost Analysis

3D Printing vs. Injection Molding: Speed Analysis

Low-Volume Production (1-100 parts)

3D Printing

Generally faster. While individual print times can vary depending on part size and complexity, 3D printing often offers quicker turnaround for small batches.

Injection Molding

Not ideal. The high upfront cost of mold creation makes injection molding impractical for very small quantities. The time to create the mold would outweigh the production time for a few parts.

Medium-Volume Production (100-10,000 parts)

3D Printing

Can still be viable. Printing multiple parts simultaneously or using multiple printers can increase output. However, for complex parts or larger quantities, injection molding may become competitive.

Injection Molding

Once the mold is created, production speeds for injection molding can be very fast, churning out parts in seconds. This can significantly reduce overall production time for medium volumes.

Mass Production (10,000+ parts)

3D Printing

Not competitive for mass production due to slow printing times and high per-part cost.

Injection Molding

With the mold in place, injection molding offers the fastest and most cost-effective way to produce large quantities of identical parts. Cycle times (time to create one part) can be seconds, churning out parts at incredible speeds.

3D Printing vs. Injection Molding: Application Suitability

Choosing between 3D printing and injection molding depends on the specific application and its requirements.

ApplicationIdeal ChoiceConsiderations
Prototyping & Rapid Iteration3D PrintingFast design-to-print workflow, allows for quick iteration
Low-Volume Production3D PrintingSuitable for complex/customized parts, consider cost per part and printing time for larger quantities
Mass ProductionInjection MoldingFastest & most cost-effective for large quantities of identical parts
Functional Parts with Specific Requirements3D PrintingGreat for unique features, complex geometries, videoded electronics, diverse materials (metals, biomaterials)

3D Printing vs. Injection Molding: Application Suitability


3D printing and injection molding are powerful tools for creating plastic parts, but they excel in different scenarios.

3D printing shines in prototyping, customization, and complex geometries, while injection molding dominates mass production with its speed and efficiency.

Achieve Successful 3D Printing with Unionfab

Unionfab utilizes various 3D printing services beyond the basic FDM method. We offer SLA for high-precision, smooth-surfaced parts, and SLS for creating functional parts with exceptional durability.

This access to diverse printing technologies ensures you get the best possible print quality and functionality for your specific design.

Unionfab 3d printing and cnc service