As Executive Editor Joris Peels recently pointed out, antennas are ripe for additive disruption. The ability to produce complex geometries in a tight space make it possible to both improve on existing antenna designs and experiment with entirely new ones. However, for the most part, 3D printing of antennas has been limited to research endeavors and individual one-off projects—at least from what has been made public. Now, CAES is teaming with Swissto12 to drive the adoption of 3D printed parts for radio frequency (RF) communications, including antenna and satellite components, through a new partnership.

Based in Arlington, Virginia, CAES previously went by the name Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions when it was still the electronics unit of British defense and aerospace contractor Cobham. When private equity firm Advent International acquired Cobham for $5 billion in 2020, CAES became a stand-alone U.S. business. Now that CAES is on its own, it is targeting the Department of Defense and its supply chain to provide its electronics components. Former vice president of advanced program development at Lockheed Martin’s space division, David Young, jumped on as chief technology officer of CAES just this January.

“We are proud to offer this innovative technology to leading US aerospace and defense primes,” said Young. “This alliance enables  fully trusted next-generation RF solutions for our customers that require the highest level of security, including Department of Defense and classified applications. Through the transfer of best-in-class technology to a US market leader, leading aerospace and defense primes will now be able to deploy this technology on key programs requiring RF, microwave and millimeter wave innovation. Our decades-long relationships with our prime customers and our track record of successfully delivering on our programs, combined with SWISSto12’s market-leading additive manufacturing intellectual property and flight heritage in space, electronic warfare and other applications will ensure that the US government can fully exploit this emerging technology.”

Swissto12 was spun out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, (EPFL), to 3D print complex satellite parts. In particular, the Swiss company has developed “end-to-end 3D printing solutions” that are able to address inaccuracies caused by the layered nature of 3D satellite components that cause RF signals to bounce around. For this reason, Swissto12 has seen a few hundred of its products already integrated into in-orbit satellites. This includes the Eutelsat Konnect satellite from Thales Alenia Space, as well as satellites from the U.K.’s Inmarsat and Israel’s NSLComm.

A monolithic Ka-band feedchain, which previously would have had to have multiple parts assembled. Image courtesy of Swissto12.

SWISSto12 is excited to partner with CAES,” said Emile de Rijk, CEO, SWISSto12. “Our pioneering expertise, product and patent portfolio utilizing additive manufacturing techniques for RF applications combined with CAES’ market leadership in the US, RF design engineering, large scale manufacturing, and test expertise will position the US aerospace and defense industry to successfully adopt groundbreaking technologies. Additionally, the alliance provides an opportunity to develop subsystems combining the best of both companies’ technologies.”

Swissto12 expanded its U.S. presence in 2019, initiating its work with CAES. Together, CAES and Swissto12 will be able to bring 3D printing to the manufacture of RF parts similar to how companies like Rocket Lab, Relativity Space and Launcher have used 3D printing to make rocket engines. In turn, this will drive the use of 3D printing in space applications altogether.

Waveguide filters and diplexers 3D printed by Swissto12. Image courtesy of Swissto12.

According to Space News, de Rijk and Young said that RF components represent a third stage in the evolution of 3D printing for satellites. This began with basic structures, was followed by fuel tanks that are pressurized and meet specific load tolerances. “A tank is very focused on, I’ll say, the mechanical world,” Young told Space News. “The things that we’re talking about building are very focused on taking the electromagnetic world and transferring it through the mechanical world to the digital devices.”

3D printed antenna and antenna array. Image courtesy of Swissto12.

Other aspects that the team will have to be able to tackle as they work on 3D printing more and more satellite parts include thermal management and cooling systems. And, while companies like Made In Space are working toward a future of 3D printing satellites in space, de Rijk said that this was still decades away.

“It’s a cool area, but … there is still a lot to do with manufacturing on the ground,” de Rijk said. “Today, we’ve really just scratched the surface. I mean, we’ve done one percent of what we could do in terms of 3D printing space hardware.”