Nano Dimension and UTS ProtoSpace 3D print 5G antenna arrays for precision AMEs

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Sydney University of Technology (UTS) ProtoSpace and Nano Dimension, a leading manufacturer of industrial 3D printers for additive manufacturing electronics (AME) conducted a pilot project to accelerate the development of AME devices 5G.

Using Nano Dimension’s DragonFly LDM 3D printing system, the partners fabricated 5G millimeter wave packaged antenna (AiP) designs that would deliver improved bandwidth while bridging the gap between AME AiP and chips.

According to the partners, the successful printing of prototype antenna arrays opens up “huge possibilities” for 5G consumer mobile electronics.

Nano Dimension’s DragonFly LDM 3D printing technology in action. Photo via Nano Dimension.

The DragonFly LDM 3D printer

Nano Dimension’s flagship DragonFly LDM system is the driving force behind the company’s AME capabilities, combining free-form geometry with on-board electronics. The printer is equipped with two inkjet printheads that simultaneously print conductive silver nano-inks, which form the majority of the circuit board connections, with dielectric photopolymer inks, which provide mechanical support, thermal resistance and electrical insulation to surrounding structures.

In April, Nano Dimension acquired machine learning company DeepCube and has since applied the company’s deep learning expertise to develop a distributed electronics manufacturing network based on machine learning. The platform enables digital control over the company’s global network of 3D printers, which are capable of continuously self-learning and improving efficiency.

Shortly thereafter, Nano Dimension also acquired micro-scale 3D printer developer Nanofabrica and incorporated the company’s technology into its machines to advance 3D printing of high-performance precision electronic devices (Hi -PED).

With these acquisitions, Nano Dimension seeks to tackle the current shortage of semiconductor chips around the world due to supply chain issues and increasing pressure on the margins of printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturers. .

More recently, Nano Dimension announced a partnership with the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (Fraunhofer IPA) to develop new free-form 3D printing and assembly processes specifically for the production of electromechanical systems. By the end of the two-year project, Nano Dimension hopes to integrate the processes into its DragonFly LDM system.

Nano Dimension DragonFly LDM electronic 3D printer.  Photo via Nano Dimension.
Nano Dimension DragonFly LDM electronic 3D printer. Photo via Nano Dimension.

Advancing Precision Electronic Components

Located in the heart of Sydney, ProtoSpace UTS is one of Australia’s most advanced additive manufacturing facilities, providing access to advanced 3D printing and scanning technologies.

The pilot project between ProtoSpace UTS and Nano Dimension was led by Dr Yang Yang, Head of the Integrated Circuits and Millimeter Wave Antennas group at UTS Tech Lab. Yang worked with Professor Francesca Lacopi and the Nano Dimension R&D team to advance millimeter wave and terahertz 3D antennas and circuit boards and harness the power of 5G for the space sector.

The partners worked on a wireless ecosystem that will allow billions of high-speed wireless devices and antennas of highly integrated AME devices running on millimeter wave bands to be packaged on mobile devices.

To achieve this, however, they still face several challenges before they can usher in a “new era of IoT 5G”. Development of AME 5G devices is still in its infancy, due to the high cost and long production cycles of millimeter wave AiPs, making custom prototyping and proof-of-concept difficult.

In addition, there remains an urgent need for high speed steerable multibeam mobile antennas in digital environments, now that the gains of conventional device antennas have been pushed to their limits.

The team is also tasked with studying how best to integrate and miniaturize packaged antenna arrays without affecting their critical performance.

To address these issues, Yang and his team developed a new AME process to produce 5G millimeter wave AiP designs based on a proof of concept from a pilot project led by UTS and Nano Dimension. The process would fabricate multiple single-substrate conductive layers with custom package profiles, without risking privacy or IP security.

Nano Dimension's AME 3D printing technology works by depositing two different types of ink.  Image via Nano Dimension.
Nano Dimension’s AME 3D printing technology works by depositing two different types of ink. Image via Nano Dimension.

Manufacture of antenna arrays

Using the DragonFly LDM, the team produced several single-substrate metal multilayer antennas using their developed AME process, based on piezoelectric 3D printing. Metal layers were stacked vertically in a single 3D printed substrate to form a prototype antenna that had the advantages of high bandwidth and ultra-low profile.

To prove their concept, the team designed and 3D printed multilayer linear polarized (LP) patch antenna elements and 2 × 2 LP antenna arrays. The “feed array” could be integrated into the same substrate of the antenna array element without increasing the size and profile of the array.

Compared to a traditional single-layer LP patch antenna, the team’s device improved the impedance bandwidth from 5.9% to 10.9% (three layers) and 83% (seven layers). The team’s designs can be fabricated in a single substrate that is only 1.5mm thick, making it suitable for applications where an ultra-low profile and wideband patch antenna is expected.

Following this, the partners produced circular polarized (CP) patch antenna elements and 2 × 2 CP antenna arrays, which validated the team’s vertical metal layer stacking method to achieve a Wider impedance bandwidth and a wider frequency range with an axial ratio of less than 3 dB. The antennas were designed at less than 6 GHz, offering considerable potential for applications within 5G mobile consumer electronics.

The team believe their AME AiP technology is able to seamlessly bridge the gap between AME AiP and chips, while offering prototyping costs that are much lower than traditional manufacturing methods. They believe these factors will help achieve initial proof of concept and custom prototyping for AME AiP, and therefore accelerate the development of AME 5G device antennas in industries such as space and mobile consumer electronics.

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Featured Image Shows Nano Dimension’s DragonFly LDM 3D printing technology in action. Photo via Nano Dimension.

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