[INTERVIEW] How SWISSto12 uses game-changing additive manufacturing in the SATCOM and RF sectors

SWISSto12’s journey into additive manufacturing began with stereolithography, initially exploring its applications for radiofrequency components. The company is now a leader in using metal additive manufacturing for waveguides, antenna components, and arrays. SWISSto12 is working on projects such as HummingSat and was named a “Technology Pioneer” by the World Economic Forum. The company’s “game-changing” patented approach unlocks RF designs that were previously considered impossible.

I spoke with Mathieu Billod, a mechanical engineer who was one of the first employees of SWISSto12. From its inception, SWISSto12 aimed to transform the space industry through innovative manufacturing technologies. “I wanted to be in a company where I could influence the strategy and how things are done,” said Billod. Starting alone in a small office, he has witnessed SWISSto12 grow to 150 employees, shedding its startup label to become a significant player in the space sector.

However, the material limitations of early 3D printing technologies posed challenges. “For the aerospace industry, the material was not fully suitable for what we wanted to do,” Billod explained. This led the company to pivot towards metal additive manufacturing, particularly powder bed fusion (PBF).

“At that time, PBF was the only solution,” said Billod. By integrating radiofrequency engineers, mechanical engineers, and testing engineers under one roof, SWISSto12 developed a cohesive approach to fine-tuning additive manufacturing processes. This agility and interdisciplinary collaboration allowed them to outperform larger competitors and demonstrate the technology’s potential to major satellite integrators.

Join Mathieu Billod at Additive Manufacturing Advantage: Aerospace, Space & Defense, register now.

Taking an Agile and Innovative Approach to Secure Success with Additive Manufacturing

SWISSto12 embraced a startup mentality, enabling them to adapt their business model quickly. Initially, they followed a build-to-print approach but soon realized its limitations. “Customers wanted us to print designs made for conventional manufacturing, which was neither cost-effective nor performance-optimized,” Billod noted. Shifting to a build-to-spec approach allowed them to meet customer specifications more efficiently and showcase the advantages of additive manufacturing.

This shift in strategy highlighted the importance of integrating multiple functions into single components, reducing assembly costs and enhancing performance. “The value proposition of additive manufacturing is to enable more complexity without added cost,” Billod emphasized. This approach not only met the needs of their customers but also established SWISSto12 as a leader in innovative manufacturing solutions.

Reflecting on the past decade, Billod acknowledged the initial hype surrounding additive manufacturing. “Many service bureaus were bought by big names for a lot of money, but without enough work, many have closed,” he observed. The industry’s challenge, according to Billod, was overestimating the rapid adoption of the technology without adequately focusing on viable applications.

SWISSto12’s systems approach has yielded significant results in various applications. By consolidating assemblies and integrating functions into single parts, they have optimized performance and reduced costs across multiple projects. “Every customer wants better performance, less assembly, shorter lead times, mass optimization, and good mechanical properties,” Billod said. SWISSto12’s ability to meet these demands through additive manufacturing has been a game-changer, enabling it to deliver superior products tailored to the specific needs of the aerospace industry.

SWISSto12 has delivered a ‘large batch’ of 3D printed waveguide signal interconnects for use in the Eutelsat KONNECT VHTS program. Image via SWISSto12.
SWISSto12 has previously delivered a ‘large batch’ of 3D printed waveguide signal interconnects for use in the Eutelsat KONNECT VHTS program. Photo via SWISSto12.

Advancing SATCOM with Additive Manufacturing

SWISSto12 has leveraged additive manufacturing to create cutting-edge SATCOM antennas, particularly for in-flight connectivity. These antennas, mounted on aircraft, enable passengers to access the internet while airborne. “We are introducing a new generation of antennas that optimize the use of surface area for better radiation performance and lightweight design,” explains Billod. This innovation reduces the total cost of ownership for customers by enabling smaller, more efficient motors and retaining more data. Additionally, the compact design significantly reduces the bill of materials, marking a significant advancement in antenna technology.

While the qualification process for civil aircraft is ongoing, the potential applications of SWISSto12’s technology extend to the military sector. Companies like General Dynamics and Harris are already exploring similar technologies for military use. “SATCOM is used everywhere, from telecommunication to military operations,” says Billod. 

SWISSto12’s additive manufacturing offering is not limited to antennas. The company is also making significant strides in satellite technology. By providing components for small spacecraft, they enable these satellites to be launched in rideshare configurations, significantly reducing costs. “We have been able to pack a lot of performance into small spacecraft, delivering cost per megabit comparable to larger satellites,” Billod highlights.

A standout achievement is the production of 45 meters of waveguides for a single satellite using additive manufacturing. “Without these complex waveguides, the equipment interconnections would be bulkier, preventing high-density configurations and making the business case unviable,” Billod explains. This capability demonstrates how additive manufacturing can enhance the performance and viability of space technology.

SWISSto12’s RF Feed Chains. Image via SWISSto12.
SWISSto12’s RF Feed Chains. Image via SWISSto12.

Enhancing the Additive Manufacturing Ecosystem

When asked about improvements needed in the additive manufacturing industry, Billod pointed to several areas. “There are numerous opportunities in process optimization, material development, machine capabilities, and digital suites,” he notes. Enhancing these aspects can lead to cost reductions and increased competitiveness. Additionally, improving metal additive processes and machine amortization periods can significantly impact the industry’s efficiency and scalability.

Billod emphasized the need for precision and flexibility in additive manufacturing. “We need to place materials and accuracy where they are needed, sometimes allowing faster production in less critical areas,” he explains. This tailored approach can optimize the manufacturing process, ensuring high performance where necessary while reducing costs and production time in other areas.

Billod highlighted the significant advancements in additive manufacturing technology, such as beam shaping. “Being able to fine-tune the laser shape, the spot size, and the focus is really important,” he noted. This precision, when combined with the right materials, is crucial for optimizing manufacturing processes. Historically, materials used were not fully optimized for the technology, but ongoing developments promise to enhance performance significantly.

Future Goals: Integrating Systems and Electronics

Looking ahead, SWISSto12 aims to leverage its expertise in additive manufacturing to deliver comprehensive systems, rather than just individual components. “We have developed and patented many building blocks, both in design and process technology,” Billod explained. The company’s future strategy involves combining these elements to deliver fully integrated systems.

Billod elaborated on this vision: “Our goal is to deliver systems by combining world-class additive manufacturing technology with the latest generation of electronics.” This integration aims to unlock the next generation of antenna systems. By moving beyond manufacturing passive antenna components, SWISSto12 plans to incorporate active electronics, enabling them to generate, process, and radiate signals through their antennas.

The shift from passive to active components represents a significant strategic move. “The antennas we manufacture today are the passive part of the system,” Billod said. “Now, we want to integrate the full system, including the electronics, to process and radiate signals.” This holistic approach is expected to revolutionize how antennas are manufactured and deployed, enhancing system performance and efficiency.

By integrating multi-disciplinary technologies and using additive manufacturing as a core component, SWISSto12 aims to create a game-changing impact in the industry. The company’s focus on combining advanced manufacturing techniques with cutting-edge electronics positions it at the forefront of technological innovation in the telecommunications and aerospace sectors.

Learn more at our July 16th online event: Additive Manufacturing Advantage: Aerospace, Space & Defense

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