3D Printing TechBite
“In harsh environments, such as space, new materials will improve the resilience and performance of antennas,” says Yiannis Vardaxoglou, Professor of Wireless Communications at Loughborough University. He goes on to add that it will also be become easier to produce bespoke devices at a lower cost to match the specific requirements of any end application more closely and with greater efficiency.
Benefits for low volume manufacturing and rapid prototyping
“We’re not saying additive manufacturing will replace conventional processes, but it presents a great opportunity for low volume resource efficient manufacturing of bespoke parts and the rapid prototyping of microwave componentry,” he points out. “Antennas are a bit easier to 3D print as they need passive printed circuits, but the same argument also goes for RF circuits,” he continues. “In the future I think we’ll be 3D printing active devices like transistors as well.”
Synthesising 3D metamaterials for RF systems and antennas
Several research programmes across the UK are currently focusing on the advancement of RF materials and antenna design. This includes SYMETA: an EPSRC-funded project that sees experts coming together from five different universities (University of Exeter, Loughborough University, University of Oxford, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sheffield) to work on synthesising 3D metamaterials for RF, Microwave and THz applications.
“Metamaterials is a growth area worldwide,” says Vardaxoglou, who is also the director of the project. “It’s a way of manipulating basic materials to form synthetic materials with new properties that are highly suitable for many different sectors, especially defence,” he notes.
“Our work entails synthesising small particles, which we call meta atoms, to invoke new materials that we combine with additive manufacturing to produce antennas and RF circuits. It’s a grand challenge – a five-year research programme.”
Roughly a year and a half into the project and Vardaxoglou’s team’s already had three major breakthroughs. The first was to successfully combine metals and dielectrics in 3D printing, the second to 3D print ceramics, and the latest to produce demonstrator antennas, capacitors and filters. However, there is still much more to be done before the team can share a working circuit.
“This year is very crucial for us and there are still huge challenges to overcome,” Vardaxoglou explains. “These require expertise not only from engineers but, amongst others, material scientists and physicists. There are issues around scalability, the alignment of materials with devices and manufacturing processes to create a credible design.”
Although it is still early days, industry has, rightly so, taken a strong interest in such research projects. For example SYMETA is already attracting interest from industrial collaborators with twelve companies currently involved with the project and more making contact.
Vardaxoglou believes that now is the time for industry to become more engaged, as this work will lead to the development of new materials and manufacturing processes for novel designs of high frequency communications equipment.
With this in mind, the IET is hosting a seminar in February entitled Novel RF Materials and Manufacturing Techniques for Antennas. This two-day colloquium will include talks from a number of experts from these two interdependent and complimentary fields. In addition attendees will have the opportunity to exchange information on capabilities and understanding of current limitations, with the aim of accelerating the industrial impact of this work.
“It’ll be very interesting for those from industry to come and see what’s happening in research and what they may well be working with in the future,” says Vardaxoglou. “There will be a chance to exchange knowledge with other companies and researchers, allowing them to come away and strategise for the future.”
For more information about the event click here