Apr 16, 2019

How Phased Array Antenna Manufacturers Benefit from Rapid Prototyping

phased array antenna prototypeAntennas come in all shapes and sizes. They can also be engineered to emit unique radiation patterns, in multiple bands, and at many different frequencies. If you need to include a directional antenna on your next PCB, and you aren’t satisfied with the availability of prepackaged components, you might consider printing your own antenna directly onto your board.

Phased array antennas are no different—they can be engineered to emit a beam-like radiation pattern at various frequencies. These devices are unique in that the radiation pattern is not set in stone. Instead, the directionality can be changed with the right supporting electronics and timing algorithm.

These devices are sure to play a greater role in PCBs, whether as integrated circuits or as arrays of printed antennas. Let’s discuss some challenges faced by phased array antenna manufacturers and how rapid prototyping can help.

Two phased array antennas against a blue-sky background

Phased array antennas come in all shapes and sizes

Phased Array Antennas

In the simplest sense, a phased array antenna is a 2D array of antennas that allow the designer to engineer the radiation pattern and its direction. Engineering a particular radiation pattern requires precisely timing each antenna’s emission based on its position in the array. This also requires choosing the type and arrangement of antennas that will appear in the array.

Although phased array antennas originally found their home in the radar community and in missile defense, these unique antenna arrays are finding uses in many new areas that require directional antennas. As these antennas become smaller and operate at higher frequencies, the scope of applications for these adaptable antennas is only expected to grow—spanning IoT, vehicle radar, and even wearable electronics.

Rapid Prototyping Challenges for Phased Array Antenna Manufacturers

Phased array antenna manufacturers that want to design boards with printed arrays face the same prototyping problems that arise in other areas of the electronics industry. Any prototype PCB on FR4 or other standard substrates will need to be printed using processes such as electrolytic deposition, etching, drilling, and solder mask application processes. Manufacturers will need to make Gerber files from the master design files for each step. In total, a board with a standard stackup will require dozens of fabrication steps, and the number of steps only increases as the layer count increases.

Overcoming some of the challenges facing the design of printed phased array antennas on PCBs, especially electromagnetic interference (EMI) problems, requires an iterative process of modeling, simulation, fabrication, and testing. Your antenna array and the supporting electronics need to be designed and simulated using a 3D field solver and a circuit simulator, respectively. Once you’ve decided on a design based on your model outputs, you’ll still need to build a prototype of your board to begin testing.

A Smith chart, a tool used by phased array antenna manufacturers in the design process, on a blue background.

A Smith chart is just one of the tools you will need to design a phased array antenna

The term “rapid prototyping” is something of a misnomer. One particular pain point involved in traditional rapid prototyping is that it is not so rapid. If you send your prototype off to a short-run manufacturer, they require a considerable turnaround time to fabricate and validate your multilayer prototype board. Between supplier selection, purchasing approvals, shipping and fabrication, your team will lose momentum while waiting to receive and test their prototype.

The other pain point in using a traditional PCB manufacturer for rapid prototyping is cost. This is especially true for complex boards. Each prototyping run requires that your manufacturer set up and fine-tune their process for your particular board. Before you send your prototype off to a short-run manufacturer, you’ll have to prepare standard deliverables for your fabricator for each prototyping run. This takes away even more time—and money—that could be better spent on R&D and get you to market more quickly.

If you can develop your board quickly and cheaply, then the cost of failure is reduced. As a result, you don’t need to be afraid of innovating. Eliminating the middleman in the prototyping process enables designers to take more risks when designers and also test more ideas more frequently.

Keeping Rapid Prototyping Local with Additive Manufacturing

What if a prototype for your new wireless device could be built in-house, rather than sending it out to a traditional PCB manufacturer? You’ll be able to avoid the lead times, costs, and lost R&D momentum when your prototyping process takes hours instead of weeks.

Working with in-house additive manufacturing systems allows you to take your proposed design, load it directly into a 3D printer, and immediately start creating a prototype. You won’t need to prepare your data in a format that is suited to your manufacturing partner, get a purchase order, or comply with other manufacturer-specific instructions each time you need a new prototype.

You can 3D print an antenna array using special conductive and dialectric inks. Rather than using a standard deposition process from an electrolytic solution, this process forms conductive pads and traces through a low-temperature sintering process. You’ll be able to manufacture your board in-house and place the components you need to support your phased array antenna quickly and efficiently—you can print an idea you’ve been working on for weeks in about one day.

What’s more, this fabrication process is not limited to antennas—you can print any circuit board you can imagine when you use the right additive manufacturing system. This revolutionary capability will help phased array antenna manufacturers stay on the cutting edge as PCBs with wireless capabilities become more ubiquitous—the sky is the limit if you don’t limit yourself to prepackaged components.

Phased array antenna manufacturers looking to create advanced wireless PCBs can avoid significant lead times and save on costs when prototyping is kept in-house. The DragonFly Pro additive manufacturing system allows you to 3D print antennas with any geometry, including phased array antennas. If you’re interested in learning more about the DragonFly Pro system, read a case study or contact us today.

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