“Directly printing active phased array antennas on curved surfaces will provide unique capabilities to the Department of Defense, but the ultimate goal is to do this at a fraction of the cost of traditionally manufactured arrays," said Casey Perkowski, lead developer on the project for Sciperio. "This will allow the DoD to use these antennas in a more ubiquitous manner and this will translate to commercial applications.”
This technology is vital to nScrypt’s longstanding vision that next generation electronics will not be planar, and will become fully 3D, conforming to and/or embedded in the structure of an object. Rather than the current practice of having a PCB, putting the PCB in a box, and using bulky wiring harnesses to connect to it, future electronics will reduce the size, weight, and cost by eliminating the wiring harness, box, and PCB and integrating the electronics into the structure.
The enabler for this vision for future electronics is nScrypt’s Direct Digital Manufacturing platform, which it calls its Factory in a Tool (FiT), which integrates multiple tool heads, including nScrypt’s nFD for Material Extrusion, SmartPump for Micro-Dispensing, nMill for micro-milling, and nPnP for pick and place of electronic components. These tool heads are placed on a high-precision linear motion gantry (up to 10nm resolution, 500nm repeatability, 1-micron accuracy) and accompanied by multiple cameras for automated inspection and computer vision routines, and a point laser height sensor for mapping surfaces, allowing for conformal printing or Micro-Dispensing onto objects. Combining all these processes and capabilities into a single platform allows for the manufacture of complex structural electronics (such as the phased array antenna shown in the images below) at the press of a button. The goal of the project is the production of an 8 x 8 element array on an ellipsoidal surface as a demonstration of the manufacturing process.
The subcontractor on the project will be the University of South Florida, which was part of the project that developed the world’s first fully 3D printed phased array antenna, and will again support the design, simulation, and testing of the antennas for the current conformal array project.
In RF electronics, every dimension is critical. In a DC printed circuit, if a line is 0.3mm instead of 0.25mm everything will most likely still function. But in an RF circuit, this could ruin the performance of the circuit and the device it is used for. This is where nScrypt’s high-precision motion and Micro-Dispensing excels. Due to the picolitre volumetric flow control of the SmartPump, the precision deposition of the nFD extruder, and the ±1.0 micron
accuracy and ±0.5 micron repeatability of the motion platform, nScrypt’s platform repeatably produces conductive and dielectric features to high tolerances. This has been crucial to the success of Sciperio’s many RF and antenna projects for the Department of Defense.
A phased array antenna, as the name suggests, is an array of antenna elements which, by individually controlling the phase of each element’s signal, can use constructive and destructive interference to “aim” the signal rather than radiating it in all directions. By analogy, it is like communication with a laser pointer rather than a lightbulb. This is critical for military communications because it enables secure communications that are sent only to where and who you intend. These communications are much harder for an enemy to intercept and are used on countless military platforms.