Research

Micro 3D printing mined for future 5G mobile connections

5G, the future of mobile communications, ultra-fast video streaming and autonomous car radar, is seeking precision 3D printing methods for its circuitry.

In a University of Birmingham project set for completion at the end of 2018, two contenders from across the industry have been singled out as potential industrial partners for circuit production.

Now, with a further £743.4 thousand from the British Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the researchers have entered into a further threes years of investigation, in partnership with leading industry stakeholders, including BAE Systems, UK manufacturer Elite Antennas Ltd. and Samsung.

The outcomes of these projects are industry-focused, and tipped to place the UK at the center of developments in “Millimeter-wave Antennas and Components for Future Mobile Broadband Networks” also known as “MILLIBAN.”

Illustration of a mmWave cellular network (after “Millimeter Wave Wireless Communications”, T. S. Rappaport, et al., 2014 Prentice Hall) Image via University of Birmingham
Illustration of a mmWave cellular network (after “Millimeter Wave Wireless Communications”, T. S. Rappaport, et al., 2014 Prentice Hall) Image via University of Birmingham

A multimillion opportunity

For the past three years Professor Michael Lancaster has been the principal investigator of a project which sought to identify micromachining techniques for making circuitry suitable for for use in terahertz (“tremendously high frequency”) communications. Facilitated by over £1 million in funding from the EPSRC, the first stage of this project is set for completion in December 2018.

In the course of this project, Professor Lancaster and colleagues at the University of Birmingham have published 10 papers detailing different approaches for circuit microfabrication. With authors working at Rutherford Appleton Laborator (RAL) and Jaguar Land Rover, capable of implementing the technology in earth observations and car radar.

Still, the team are looking for cutting edge micro 3D printing technologies that fit the brief. Speaking to The Engineer Professor Lancaster explained, “As the devices go up in frequency these components get more difficult to make […] We’re looking for the best companies around the world who can print things very accurately.”

Reportedly, researchers have narrowed down their options to two companies: 3D MicroPrint and SWISSto12.

3D MicroPrint and Swissto12

The product of a co-operation between leading 3D printer manufacturer EOS and laser micromachining company 3D-Micromac, 3D MicroPrint was founded in Chemnitz, Germany, in 2013. The company specializes in the development and sale of Micro Laser Sintering technology through machines and services. Like its big brother, laser sintering, Micro Laser Sintering is a metal 3D printing method that relies on a powdered feedstock. To achieve finer quality prints, the technique simply relies on a smaller laser spot size, and a finer powder feed.

SWISSto12, the second company identified by Professor Lancaster. is based in Ecublens, Switzerland. Its patented technology, based in 3D printing, is designed especially for radio frequency applications combines both metal and polymer feedstocks. The process is ISO certified, and has earned the support of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the EU’s Horizon 2020 project.

What is MILLIBAN?

One of the next steps for Professor Lancaster and colleagues is a further ESPRC funded project titled MILLIBAN.

MILLIBAN (Not to be confused with former British Labour party leader Ed Miliband) focuses on the development of devices that exploit bandwidths between 30 Ghz and 300 Ghz, known as the extremely high frequency (EHF) range, a step ahead of terahertz. Due to nature of this bandwidth, though fast, these waves only have a range of 1 km, making them challenging for the transmission of data. As such, EHF is presently underexploited by the telecommunications industry, and a great deal of effort is being applied to figure out how to make use of the waves, through things such as MILLIBAN.

The University of Birmingham’s MILLIBAN project is led by Dr. Alexandros Feresidis, with Professor Lancaster and Professor Peter Gardner, listed as co-investigators. The project has been running since April 2017, and will receive funding for the next two years before it must be reviewed.

While the project remains a technology-agnostic pursuit, according to the MILLIBAN grant application form, “We will develop new paradigms in antenna design leading to breakthroughs in the analogue beamforming performance. This will be based on innovative enabling material technology along with state of the art microfabrication processes building on heritage at the applicants’ institutions.”

2019 3D Printing Industry Awards nominations are now open. Make your selections here.

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Featured image shows miniature rooks 3D printed using Micro Laser Sintering. Photo via 3D MicroPrint 

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