What is Subtractive Manufacturing

What is Subtractive Manufacturing?

Meta Description: Have you heard of subtractive manufacturing? Let’s discuss its fundamentals, including standard techniques like CNC machining and sheet metal fabrication, and explore its applications across various industries.

Subtractive manufacturing is a time-tested process in manufacturing that has shaped how we create high-precision components and intricate designs. Unlike additive manufacturing, which builds objects layer by layer, subtractive manufacturing involves removing material from a solid block or workpiece to achieve the desired shape and size. This traditional method is essential in various industries, from aerospace to consumer electronics, where precision, reliability, and material integrity are paramount.

This article will explore the fundamentals of subtractive manufacturing, discussing standard techniques like CNC machining and sheet metal fabrication and their applications across different sectors. Additionally, we will compare subtractive manufacturing with its modern counterpart, additive manufacturing, to highlight each approach’s unique advantages and considerations. Whether new to the concept or looking to deepen your understanding, this comprehensive guide will provide valuable insights into subtractive manufacturing.

What is Subtractive Manufacturing?

Subtractive manufacturing is a traditional process of creating objects by removing material from a solid block, also known as a workpiece, to achieve the desired shape and size. This method contrasts with additive manufacturing, where material is added layer by layer to build an object. Subtractive manufacturing encompasses various techniques, each suited for different materials and precision requirements. These techniques have been fundamental in manufacturing for decades, enabling the production of intricate and high-precision parts for various industries.

Common Subtractive Manufacturing Techniques

Several techniques fall under subtractive manufacturing, each with unique processes and applications. The most common methods are CNC machining and sheet metal fabrication.

CNC Machining.

CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining is a cornerstone of subtractive manufacturing. It employs advanced computer technology to control machine tools with exceptional precision. This sophisticated process has become indispensable in creating complex and high-quality components. By leveraging computerized controls, CNC machining offers unparalleled accuracy and repeatability, making it a preferred method for producing intricate designs across various industries.

Principles of CNC Machining.

The principles of CNC machining revolve around automated control of machining tools through computer programming. The process begins with creating a detailed 3D model of the desired part using CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software. This model includes all necessary dimensions, geometries, and tolerances.

CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) software converts the CAD model into G-code. G-code is a programming language that provides specific instructions for the CNC machine’s movements, cutting paths, speeds, and feeds. Before actual machining, simulations ensure the G-code will accurately produce the part without collisions or errors.

Once the programming phase is complete, the workpiece is securely clamped onto the CNC machine’s worktable, and the appropriate cutting tools are selected and installed.

The CNC machine then follows the G-code instructions to remove material from the workpiece precisely, creating the final part. This process includes machining operations, each suited for specific shapes and features. The main processes in CNC machining are milling, turning, drilling, and grinding.

CNC milling involves a rotating cutting tool that moves along multiple axes to remove material from the workpiece, producing slots, holes, and complex geometries. This process is ideal for high-precision creation of intricate shapes, contours, and flat surfaces.

CNC turning, on the other hand, uses a stationary cutting tool to shape a rotating workpiece, making it perfect for producing cylindrical or conical parts. CNC drilling employs a rotating drill bit to create precise holes in the workpiece, while CNC grinding uses an abrasive wheel to achieve fine surface finishes and tight tolerances.

Advantages of CNC Machining.

CNC machining offers numerous benefits that make it a preferred method in subtractive manufacturing:

  • Precision and Accuracy: CNC machines can produce parts with extremely tight tolerances, often within microns. This precision is crucial for industries like aerospace and medical devices.
  • Repeatability: Once programmed, CNC machines can consistently produce identical parts, making them ideal for mass production and ensuring high-quality standards.
  • Complex Geometries: CNC machining can create intricate and complex shapes that would be challenging or impossible with manual machining. Multi-axis CNC machines add further flexibility.
  • Efficiency: CNC machining is highly efficient, reducing manual labor and production time. Automated tool changes and continuous operation enhance productivity.
  • Versatility: CNC machines can work with various materials, including metals (aluminum, steel, titanium), plastics, composites, and more. This versatility allows them to be used in diverse industries.

Sheet Metal Fabrication

Sheet metal fabrication is a vital subtractive manufacturing process that involves shaping and assembling flat metal sheets into desired forms and structures. This technique is indispensable in numerous industries, offering flexibility, strength, and cost-effectiveness. The process encompasses a range of operations, including cutting, bending, punching, and assembling, each crucial for transforming raw metal sheets into functional components. Here, we delve into the principles, processes, advantages, applications, and future trends of sheet metal fabrication related to subtractive manufacturing.

Principles of Sheet Metal Fabrication

Sheet metal fabrication begins with selecting a suitable metal sheet, typically made from aluminum, steel, stainless steel, copper, or brass. These sheets are chosen to meet specific application requirements based on their mechanical properties, such as strength, flexibility, and corrosion resistance. The selected metal sheet undergoes various fabrication processes, each tailored to achieve the desired shape and functionality.

Fundamental Processes in Sheet Metal Fabrication


  • Laser Cutting uses a focused laser beam to cut precise shapes from metal sheets. This method offers high accuracy and is ideal for complex designs.
  • Plasma Cutting employs a high-velocity ionized gas (plasma) jet to cut through metal. It is effective for thicker materials and provides fast cutting speeds.
  • Waterjet Cutting utilizes a high-pressure stream of water mixed with abrasive particles to cut metal. It is versatile and can cut various materials without generating heat.
  • Shearing is a mechanical process that cuts straight lines by applying a shearing force. It is suitable for cutting large sheets into smaller sections.


  • Press Brake Bending: A press brake machine bends metal sheets along a straight axis. The sheet is clamped between a punch and die, which apply force to create the desired bend angle.
  • Roll Bending involves passing the metal sheet through a series of rollers to achieve a curved shape. This method is often used to create cylindrical or conical parts.
  • V-Bending: It uses a V-shaped die to create precise bends, commonly employed for making sharp angles.


  • Turret Punching: Involves a turret press that punches holes or shapes into the metal sheet using a series of tools and dies. It is suitable for creating repetitive patterns and multiple hole sizes.
  • CNC Punching: Utilizes computer-controlled machines to punch holes or shapes with high precision and speed. It allows for complex and custom designs.


  • Welding: This process joins metal parts by melting and fusing them. Standard welding techniques include MIG (Metal Inert Gas), TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas), and spot welding.
  • Riveting: Metal rivets fasten sheets together, providing solid and permanent joints.
  • Bolting: Involves using bolts and nuts to assemble metal parts, allowing for disassembly if needed.
  • Adhesive Bonding: Uses industrial adhesives to join metal sheets, offering a clean and efficient assembly method without heat.

Advantages of Sheet Metal Fabrication

Sheet metal fabrication offers several advantages, making it a preferred choice in many industries:

  • Versatility: The ability to fabricate various shapes and structures, from simple brackets to complex enclosures and intricate designs.
  • Strength and Durability: Metal sheets provide high structural integrity and can withstand significant stress and environmental conditions.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Efficient processes and automation reduce labor costs and material waste, making prototyping and mass production economical.
  • Scalability: Suitable for producing both small batches and large-scale production runs, with consistent quality and precision.
  • Customization: Allows for the creation of custom parts tailored to specific applications, with precise dimensions and finishes.

Applications of Subtractive Manufacturing in Various Industries

Due to their precision, reliability, and versatility, subtractive manufacturing techniques are employed across numerous industries. Some critical applications include:

  • Aerospace: The aerospace industry relies on subtractive manufacturing to produce critical components like turbine blades, engine parts, and structural components. High precision and material integrity are crucial in this sector.
  • Automotive: Subtractive manufacturing creates engine components, transmission parts, and custom accessories. CNC machining and sheet metal fabrication ensure high performance and durability.
  • Medical Devices: The medical field utilizes subtractive manufacturing to create implants, surgical instruments, and diagnostic equipment. Precision and biocompatibility are essential considerations.
  • Consumer Electronics: Subtractive manufacturing techniques produce intricate parts for smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices. The ability to work with various materials allows for innovative designs and functionality.
  • Industrial Equipment: Manufacturing machinery, tooling, and components often involve subtractive processes due to their robustness and ability to withstand high stress and wear.

Subtractive vs. Additive Manufacturing

Subtractive and additive manufacturing (3D printing) are fundamentally different approaches to creating objects, each with advantages and limitations.

  • Material Usage: Subtractive manufacturing removes material, which can result in significant waste. In contrast, additive manufacturing builds objects layer by layer, minimizing material waste.
  • Precision and Surface Finish: Subtractive techniques typically offer higher accuracy and better surface finish than most additive methods. This makes subtractive manufacturing suitable for applications requiring tight tolerances and smooth surfaces.
  • Complexity and Customization: Additive manufacturing creates complex geometries and customized parts without specific tooling. Subtractive manufacturing might require complex setups and tooling for intricate designs.
  • Production Speed: Subtractive manufacturing can be faster for mass production due to its ability to produce multiple parts simultaneously. Additive manufacturing is generally slower but allows for rapid prototyping and customization.
  • Material Range: Subtractive manufacturing can handle a broader range of materials, including metals, plastics, and composites. Additive manufacturing is expanding its material capabilities but is currently more limited.


Subtractive manufacturing remains a cornerstone of modern industry, offering unmatched precision, reliability, and versatility. Techniques like CNC machining and sheet metal fabrication are crucial in producing high-quality components for the aerospace, automotive, medical, and consumer electronics industries.

While additive manufacturing offers exciting possibilities, subtractive manufacturing continues to be indispensable for applications requiring tight tolerances, robust materials, and high production volumes. Understanding the strengths and applications of subtractive manufacturing is essential for choosing the right approach for your manufacturing needs.

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