3-Axis CNC Plastic Routing vs. 5-Axis CNC Plastic Routing– What’s the Difference?

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Now, we understand that not everyone is as enthusiastic about plastic manufacturing as we are here at ICP. For most people, the top priority is getting the right part made on time, on budget, and less so the thrilling allure of choosing the right drill tip.

To that end, while we get excited talking about CNC plastic routing, we understand that most of our customers just want to know what’s going to get their part made.

Today, we’ll break down CNC routing and how to choose between 3-axis and 5-axis – without getting bogged down in jargon.

What is 3-Axis CNC Plastic Routing?

3-axis CNC routing works great for flat (or mostly flat) parts. This routing is best suited for 2-dimensional simple parts or applications.

cnc routed plastic sheet
In this example, a 3-axis router is ideal for cutting shapes and words into this flat part.

3-axis CNC routers can work with small part sizes or large sizes, depending on the need. At ICP, our largest router works on parts as large as 6’ x 12’.

What a 3-Axis Router Can Do:

  • Cutting prefabrication blanks
  • Drilling or generating holes
  • Crowning edges
  • Routing or drilling cutouts, signage, steps, pockets, and counter-bores

Our Equipment:

THERMWOOD 3-AXIS CNC

  • Single head and table with dual vacuum zones

HOLZMA – CNC CUTTING SAW

What is 5-Axis CNC Plastic Routing?

5-axis CNC plastic routing offers more precision over 3-axis routing. For that reason, it’s best suited for complex 3-dimensional parts.

cnc plastic routed piece for automotive
In this example, a 5-axis router was used to create this intricate part. A 3-axis router would be unable to precisely cut the holes and ridges necessary.

For three-dimensional parts with varying angles, multiple surfaces, little nooks and crannies, you’ll need the maneuverability and precision of a 5-axis CNC routing machine.

What a 5-Axis Router Can Make:

  • Trimming and routing vacuum and pressure-formed parts
  • Post-bend trimming of heat or cold-bent parts
  • Trimming injection-molded parts

Our Equipment:

QUINTAX – 5 AXIS CNC

  • Single head with 8 tool change capacity

3 – THERMWOOD 5-AXIS CNCS

  • Largest bed size uses dual 5’x10’ tables and a 48” Vertical Z Axis

How to Choose Between a 3-Axis and 5-Axis Router for CNC Plastic Routing

The right solution depends entirely on your part and needed application. However, generally speaking, it’s fairly easy to make the decision:

↳ 2-dimensional part? Choose a 3-axis CNC routing machine

↳ 3-dimensional part? Choose a 5-axis CNC routing machine

However, routing is just one part of the plastic manufacturing process, and might not even be the right solution depending on your part.

Sure, it’s great living after the industrial revolution, but how are you supposed to decide on a manufacturing process with so many options?

Let us help you decide! ICP offers a wide array of processes, and we can customize a solution to meet your goals. Call or email us to connect with our manufacturing experts, discuss your project, and determine which process works best for you.


Industrial Custom Products is a one-stop-shop for custom manufacturing and plastic fabrication, including: prototyping and product development, die cutting and dieless knife cutting, thermoforming and vacuum forming, large part thermoforming, CNC plastic routing, fabrication and assembly and drape forming.