Digital Fabrication Equipment Comparison Table

You can think of digital fabrication machines as working in one of two manners: Subtractive or Additive

  • Subtractive machines start with a large block or piece of material, and machine, mill or cut the material until the parts are the size and shape you want.
  • Additive machines start with nothing, and lay down or extrude material to build up the object into the final product. Often, the term Rapid Prototyping is used when describing the technique of building up or adding material to achieve the final “printed” product.
  • 3D printing is another term that is often used for additive machines, but traditional “subtractive” machines can also produce 3D objects, often more efficiently and using more kinds of materials than 3D additive printers.
Type of Machine “Traditional” CNC router or milling machine Laser Cutter Vinyl Cutter
Cardboard Cutter
3D Printer, Additive
Subtractive or Additive Subtractive Subtractive Subtractive Additive
How it works Uses a spinning router bit to machine away material from a larger block or sheet

A laser beam is directed at the material, which then either melts, burns, vaporizes away, or is blown away by a jet of gas.

Uses a knife blade (vibrating or not) to cut out sheet material.

Lays down layers of a softened material or powder to build up an object in 3D.

What can you do with the machine?
  • Machine or cut out flat sheets of material to one depth (2D)
  • Engrave (V Carve)
  • Machine in 3D
  • Etch the surface of flat materials
  • Burn out thin materials
  • Cut sheet material into 2D parts.
  • Build up intricate 3D parts
Samples of objects made with the machines:

Where they shine
  • Making precise, complex or straight, repeatable cuts to a specific depth for furniture making, boat building, etc
  • Decorative carving for signs, art
  • 3D carving, moldmaking
  • Etching on glass, fabric, metals
  • Burning out thin materials for press-fit
  • Prototyping design in small scale for eventual manufacturing on larger CNC machines
  • Cutting out vinyl lettering and designs for signs, T-shirts
  • Creating masking templates for screen printing, etching or sandblasting,
  • Cardboard cutting machines can use recycled cardboard to teach concepts of digital fabrication with little noise or mess
  • Creating objects with undercuts or moving parts within other parts.
  • Many designs available on web so it’s easy to download and print
Ease of use
Desktop models
A learning curve:
  • How different materials machine
  • Which bit to use
  • Feeds and speeds to get cleanest cut and make the bit last the longest
  • How to hold down material while machining
  • Import design file into Corel Draw software
  • Adjust speed rate and power levels to take into consideration material, depth of cut, (etching vs cutting through)
  • Set output to print to laser
  • Load your design
  • Make sure material is set
  • Push to print sticker or sign
  • Easy to download designs and make minor modifications
  • Make sure print heads are clean and filament rolls in good shape
  • Push to Print to start printing and watch while your object builds up
Size project you can create with desktop models
(product specific, some examples shown here)
ShopBot Desktop
Up to 24” x 18” x 4”
Designs and techniques scale up to larger ShopBots

Epilog Zing Series
16” x 12” or 24” x 12”
Designs and techniques scale up to larger machines

Roland GX-24
22” wide
Designs and techniques scale up to larger machines

MakerBot's Replicator 2
11.2 L x 6.0 W x 6.1 H in
Product is only a Desktop option

Materials you can use
  • Wood (plywood or solid wood)
  • Plastics and acrylics
  • soft metals (aluminum, brass, copper)
  • Paper
  • plastics that do not contain chloride (PVC)
  • thin wood
  • fabric
  • metals
  • Standard Vinyl
  • Heat Transfer Vinyl
  • Paper
  • Card Stock
  • Tint
  • Paint Mask
  • Laminate,
  • Personal models build with thermoplastics such as such as ABS or PLA filaments.
  • Professional models can lay down a variety of materials, from plastics to resins to ceramics to metals. Some materials harden at room temperature, some need to be “sintered” or hardened in a chemical bath post printing.
  • Machining a block or sheet of material creates noise and mess.
  • Ear protection and eye protection should be used at all times when the machine is running.
  • Dust can be collected while the tool is running, or contained with a shield and collected later.
  • Router bits are spinning at high speeds, but the router head is being controlled by the computer, so the operator is nowhere near the spinning bit.
  • Fumes from burning need to ventilated from the work space.
  • Some plastics containing Hydrogen Chloride and Vinyl Chloride (i.e. PVC), are corrosive to the machine and toxic to humans.
  • Obtain and read the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) and/or contact the manufacturer before using new materials in the laser.
  • Wear eye protection, and observe the use of the equipment at all times in case of the laser starting a fire.
  • Sharp blades are moving at high speeds, but the head is being controlled by the computer, so the operator is nowhere near the moving blade.
  • Some thermoplastics emit fumes which may be toxic to birds and sensitive humans.
  • Some materials used in professional models need to be handled with care.
  • Obtain and read the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) and/or contact the manufacturer before using 3D printing materials
Estimated time to complete same 3D .stl file
Block size 2” x 2”
  • Machine 3D stl: 7 minutes
  • Etch design onto surface:
  • V-carve design onto surface:
  • Carve 3D image: NA
  • Etch design onto surface:
  • V-carve design onto surface
  • Carve 3D image: NA
  • Cut out 2D version in vinyl
  • V-carve design onto surface
  • Print 3D image: 4 hours
  • Etch design onto surface: NA
  • V-carve design onto surface:NA
Preparation for the workforce/Scaling up The ShopBot Desktop is a fully functional CNC with the precision to cut circuit boards and the ability to machine 3D objects to a professional finish. Familiarity with software and techniques scales up to any size tool and material. Skills learned with small-shop sized lasers scale up to industrial lasers, though individual machines will have their own settings Skills learned with vinyl cutters scale up to industrial sized tools: Personal 3D printers extruding thermoplastics introduce the concepts of Designing and Making. Each material and technique used in professional 3D printing requires its own knowledge base of form and function.
Common Applications
  • woodworking, cabinet making furniture making
  • sign making
  • boat building
  • parts manufacturing & production
  • musical instruments
  • architectural millwork
  • interior design/build
  • prototyping & modeling
  • museum installations, theatre sets, trade show booths
  • electronics engraving
  • wood engraving and cutting
  • marble and stone etching
  • promotional items
  • corporate and sporting awards
  • fabric appliques
  • wooden models
  • toys and games
  • signage
  • signs
  • banners
  • outdoor advertisements
  • vehicle graphics
  • decals
  • labels
  • stencils
  • crafting
  • t-shirt graphics
Replicator 2 is a low-end version 3D printer. It can be used for making:
  • small items such as desktop toys
  • small prototypes
  • parts for manufacturing
Higher-end 3D printers have much greater industrial capabilities
Other Considerations Because of the noise and mess, it is often best to locate the CNC machine somewhere it will not disturb others or get dust everywhere. Ventilation system must be installed and used whenever laser cutter is in operation. Relatively benign piece of equipment Personal or hobby models: have a small size of build area, poor finish quality, and are limited to working with plastic filament on rolls. Check out the annual service contract to keep professional models in good working order
Optional features that expand the utility of the machine Designed as a platform for many capabilities, the Desktop provides options such as:
  • Rotary Indexer to carve in the round
  • Bits such as plotter pen, drag knife, diamond drag engraving bit, 3D digitizing probe
  • In development: laser cutting and 3D printing capabilities
Rotary attachment to work on round objects N.A. N.A.
Websites that may be of interest
answers many questions about what one can do and how one does it when working with vinyl cutters
a good review of the types of personal 3D printers from the perspective of which type of thermoplastic filaments can be used in them

Disclaimer: this document was created by ShopBot Tools, Inc. That said, ShopBot recognizes that people will be happiest when they choose the best machine and software for their application, and so offers this information in as an objective a manner as possible. Prices shown are for general reference only and are subject to change; contact manufacturers for a current price quote.