Jun 20, 2017 | By Julia

Major antenna producer Optisys is keen to show the world just how advantageous 3D printing is in the world of radio frequency (RF). Earlier today, the global communications manufacturer publicly released a demonstration showing the benefits of 3D printed metal antennas as compared with those made by traditional manufacturing. The results were indisputable: using additive manufacturing processes, what was once a complex, clunky antenna with a hundred components was re-designed into a single, integrated assembly, with drastically reduced weight and production costs.

3D printed metal antenna systems

Though we don’t often think about them, antennas are prevalently used for conveying many types of information — including voice, video, and data — across long distances. They’re pervasive in such wide-ranging areas as commercial and military aircraft, spacecraft, satellite communications, and unmanned aerial vehicles, and are also used by ground terminals and land-based troops. Yet the multifarious RF components that make up an antenna system can be sizeable and very heavy, two characteristics that impact mobility and performance.

As Optisys has demonstrated, 3D printing can offer a powerfully efficient solution. “Companies in the commercial and military space [sectors] are pressured for shorter lead times, lighter weight, and smaller antennas,” says Clinton Cathey, Optisys CEO. “By combining RF design simulation, mechanical engineering, and system optimization focused on AM, we provide metal 3D printed antenna products at greatly reduced size, weight, lead times, part count, and cost—with as-good or better RF performance than conventionally manufactured systems. We’re creating structures that were simply not possible to produce in the past.”

While this news will come as no surprise to anyone involved in additive manufacturing, the Optisys demo is a significant step forward in shaking up the manufacturing of RF components, an industry that has up until now largely shied away from 3D printing systems.

3D printed aluminum

The demonstration involved the complete redesign of a high-bandwidth, directional tracking antenna array for aircraft, the Ka-band 4x4 Monopulse Array. Executing the entire design work in-house, Optisys produced the new component in a single piece on the company’s Concept Laser machine. A large, multi-part antenna was successfully redesigned and printed as a palm-sized, one-piece 3D printed metal antenna that was much lighter than its previous incarnation.

The benefits are numerous, Optisys representatives note. In addition to reducing 100 discrete pieces to a single-piece integrated assembly, the 3D printed antenna exhibited a weight saving of over 95%, reduced production costs by 20-25%, reduced non-recurring costs by 75%, and drastically improved the lead time, which was reduced from 11 months to two months.

In addition to demonstrating the advantages of 3D printed metal, the Optisys initiative indicates that conventional methods of manufacturing antenna systems may be on their way out. Complex, multistage processes such as brazing and plunge EDM, which take an average of eight months of development time and at least three more in build time, will have a tough time competing with the streamlined processes of additive manufacturing.

“Our unique offering is that we redesign everything from an additive manufacturing perspective,” says Optisys COO Robert Smith. “We take into account the entire system functionality, combine many parts into one, and reduce both development and manufacturing lead times to just a few weeks. The result is radically improved size and weight at lower costs.”

Needless to say, the publicized promotion of 3D printing by a leading antenna producer is expected to shake up the field. As 3D printing metal transforms industrial manufacturing across the globe, more and more companies are re-thinking their production chain through additive manufacturing. Looking forward, it seems likely that antenna manufacturers will be the next to join the trend.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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