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High-Tech Application: 100 Parts to One and 95-Percent Weight Reduction Thanks to AM

Friday, August 11, 2017
 

Optisys LLC, a provider of 3D-printed metal micro-antenna products for high-performance aerospace and defense applications, recently completed a project that documents the significant advantages of employing additive manufacturing (AM) to produce such systems.

Complex radio-frequency (RF) components that make up an antenna system for aircraft and satellite applications can be large and heavy—characteristics that can impact mobility and performance.

“Companies in the commercial and military space 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.”

As an example, a test-piece demonstrator project involved a complete redesign of a high-bandwidth, directional tracking antenna array for aircraft (known as a Ka-band 4×4 Monopulse Array). Optisys performed every aspect of the design work inhouse and printed the component in a single piece on its machine from Concept Laser Inc., Grapevine, TX.

“Concept Laser’s powder-bed fusion in particular is perfect for this application because of the fine resolution it provides for antennas functioning in the 1-100-GHz range of RF in which most of our potential customers operate,” says Cathey.

Manufacturing antenna systems via conventional methods such as brazing and plunge EDM is a complex, multistage process that can take an average of eight months of development time and three to six more of build time, according to Optisys COO Robert Smith.

“Our unique offering is that we redesign everything from an additive-manufacturing perspective,” says 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.”

Optisys conducted a profitability analysis on how its redesigned microwave antennae test piece compared to a legacy design that is traditionally manufactured. By optimizing the design for additive manufacturing, Optisys realized a part-count reduction from 100 discrete pieces (see Before illustration) to a one-piece integrated assembly (see After image) and cut weight by more than 95 percent. The savings didn’t end there. Lead time was reduced from 11 months to 2 months with production costs reduced by 20 to 25 percent and non-recurring costs reduced by 75 percent.

“In addition to what our test-piece project revealed, 3D printing offers a number of other advantages,” says Smith. “When we design multiple antenna components into a single part, we reduce the overall insertion loss of the combined parts. And because our antennas are so much smaller, this also lowers insertion loss dramatically despite the higher surface roughness of AM build, for similar or even better RF performance than conventional assemblies.”

Part consolidation through AM provides a number of downstream benefits as well, Smith says. “Reducing part count also reduces assembly and rework. It’s easy to add features to an existing AM design, easier to assemble the finished components and, long-term, you have less testing, maintenance and service when you have fewer parts.”

Optisys: www.optisys.tech

Concept Laser: www.conceptlaserinc.com

 

See also: Optisys


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