After a successful first phase contract, Sciperio, the research group of nScrypt, has been awarded a second phase contract for its project to 3D print conformal phased array antennas for the U.S. Air Force. Sciperio, which developed the world’s first fully printed phased array antenna for the Air Force in 2016, has continued work to conform 3D printed antennas to complex surfaces, making it feasible to include advanced communication technology directly into the body of a vehicle or aircraft. The goal of the project is the production of an 8 x 8 element array on an ellipsoidal surface as a demonstration of the manufacturing process.

The University of South Florida (USF) will be a subcontractor on the contract. USF, part of the project that developed the world’s first fully 3D printed phased array antenna, will support the design, simulation and testing of the antennas for the second phase of the conformal array project.

Non-Planar Electronics

This technology is vital to nScrypt’s longstanding vision that next generation electronics will not be planar — rather electronics will become fully 3D, conforming to or embedded in the structure of an object. Rather than the current practice of having a PCB, putting the PCB in a box and using bulky wiring harnesses to connect to it, future electronics will reduce the size, weight and cost by eliminating the wiring harness, box and PCB and integrating the electronics into the structure.

The enabler for this vision for future electronics is nScrypt’s direct digital manufacturing platform, which it calls its Factory in a Tool (FiT). FiT integrates multiple tool heads, including nScrypt’s nFD™ for Material Extrusion, SmartPump™ for Micro-Dispensing, nMill™ for micro-milling, and nPnP™ for pick-and-place of electronic components. These tool heads are placed on a high-precision linear motion gantry, with up to 10 nm resolution, 500 nm repeatability and 1 micron accuracy. The heads are accompanied by multiple cameras for automated inspection and computer vision routines and a point laser height sensor for mapping surfaces.

The combined capability enables conformal printing or micro-dispensing onto objects. Combining all the processes into a single platform allows for the manufacture of complex structural electronics, such as a phased array antenna, at the press of a button.

“Directly printing active phased array antennas on curved surfaces will provide unique capabilities to the DoD, but the ultimate goal is to do this at a fraction of the cost of traditionally manufactured arrays. This will allow the DoD to use these antennas in a more ubiquitous manner and this will translate to commercial applications.” — Casey Perkowski, lead developer on the project for Sciperio

nScrypt's Advantage

In RF electronics, every dimension is critical. With a DC circuit, if a PCB line is 0.3 mm instead of 0.25 mm, the circuit will most likely still function. In an RF circuit, this could ruin the performance.

Achieving fine geometries and tight tolerances is where nScrypt’s high-precision motion and micro-dispensing excels. Due to the picolitre volumetric flow control of the SmartPump, the precision deposition of the nFD extruder and the ±1 micron accuracy and ±0.5 micron repeatability of the motion platform, nScrypt’s platform repeatably produces conductive and dielectric features to tight tolerances.

This capability has been crucial to the success of Sciperio’s many RF and antenna projects for the Department of Defense.