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Online Spotlight: Antenna Design in Industry vs. Antenna Education at University

January 14, 2021

This study analyzes the methods of antenna education at the universities and compares it with the antenna design process in industry. New methods are offered for electromagnetics (EM), microwave and antenna education by improvements in technology. Video lectures, web-based lectures and virtual lectures are some current educational tools. Each improves the quality of antenna education. Brick-based antenna (BBA) training hardware offers a new method for learning, with time-limited and cost-effective antenna laboratory lectures. The antenna design process in industry is outlined, and each antenna education method is analyzed in terms of the corresponding process steps.

Antenna engineering is of significant importance in wireless communication, defense, satellite and space systems development. Antenna engineering requires a theoretical background in EM, microwave and antenna theory, as well as practical knowledge of production processes, measurements and materials. The complex theoretical background is hard to understand without visualization. Students exposed solely to a theoretical education are often not motivated to pursue a career in antenna engineering. Antenna design in industry, which combines both practical and theoretical aspects, provides a more immersive and rewarding learning experience.

This article compares the antenna design process in industry with a university antenna education that includes BBA training. The goal is to improve the learning experience and increase motivation to pursue a career in this field. To provide a basis for comparing different antenna education methods, the industrial antenna design methodology is divided into process steps. Different antenna education methods are analyzed in terms of these steps. The BBA training method is explained from this perspective. Finally, the various antenna education methods are compared in terms of their similarity to the industrial antenna design process.

ANTENNA DESIGN IN INDUSTRY

The industrial antenna design process is shown in Figure 1. At the beginning of a project, the EM requirements are generally known. If they are not provided, antenna design engineers must work with the customer or system engineers to specify them. They review related books, papers and patents and apply their theoretical knowledge.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Industrial antenna design process.

Analytical calculations are sufficient to design some simple antenna types, but computational EM (CEM) tools are commonly used to design complex structures or to meet challenging antenna requirements. Some engineers write their own software design code, and some make use of commercial software packages. The antenna is designed in a computer environment and the materials specified. If it is a 3D antenna, it commonly requires a few iterations and collaboration with a mechanical engineer. If it is a 2D antenna - printed circuit board (PCB) type - the design must consider PCB fabrication tolerances.

The materials and connectors are purchased and an antenna prototype fabricated. Its reflection coefficient is measured, followed by far-field radiation parameters. Depending on the measured results, the antenna design is iterated. Antenna designers turn back to analytical calculations and modeling via CEM tools. Fabrication, measurement and analysis steps are repeated until the antenna satisfies its performance requirements. The final product is documented and delivered to the customer or system engineering.

ANTENNA EDUCATION AT UNIVERSITIES

Most universities have both theoretical and laboratory lectures. Laboratory lectures generally follow the steps in Figure 2. Students read the experiment sheets, follow the procedures under the control of laboratory assistants or watch the assistants perform the steps. Limited antenna types are usually available for experiment or observation.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Typical antenna laboratory lecture process.

Some universities employ project-based antenna or EM education concepts (see Figure 3).1-11 This includes design using CEM software tools. Depending on the educational resources, some university programs proceed to fabricate the design and perform measurements, while others only perform simulations in a software environment. Students generally have just one opportunity to fabricate their designs. The iteration step, performed in industry, is passed over.

Figure 3

Figure 3 Typical project-based antenna education process.

Project-based training covers more antenna design steps and is more efficient than antenna laboratory lectures alone; however, it is more costly, requiring CEM tools and a fabrication infrastructure.

New methods are available, such as video lectures12-21 and web lectures.22-23 These enable students to easily review theoretical information, increasing the efficiency of antenna education and providing effective training for the theoretical background step of the antenna engineering design cycle.

BBA ENGINEERING EDUCATION

BBA education is a new concept.24-28 BBA hardware comprises metal bricks, dielectric bricks, ground planes and connectors. The bricks, called “antenna cells,” can be connected to each other to form an antenna. They are reusable and can be used to build many different antenna types without soldering or bonding.

Using CEM tools, antenna engineers draw solid structures, and the tools convert the solid structures into discrete mesh cells. Antenna cells work like the mesh cells in CEM software programs. The main difference is the antenna cells are hardware. For realistic results, mesh cell sizes must be less than λ/10 in finite difference time domain analysis, where λ is the wavelength of the highest frequency. Antenna cells have 4 mm x 4 mm x 3 mm (height) resolution. Larger antenna cells including ground planes are in multiples of the minimum mesh cell. A 4 mm dimension corresponds to λ/12.5 at 6 GHz.

Figure 4 is a photo of a dielectric resonator monopole antenna built with antenna cells. The Anten’it antenna training kit,24 which uses the BBA design concept, includes three different kinds of dielectric cells with dielectric constants of 2.6, 4.4 and 8 and loss tangents better than 0.002.

Figure 4

Figure 4 Dielectric resonator monopole antenna built with antenna cells.

Figure 5 shows the antenna laboratory lecture steps using BBA education hardware. Different from other antenna laboratory kits, the objective of the Anten’it antenna training experiments is to design antennas having specific requirements. Antenna cells are reusable, easy to connect and disconnect. Experiments begin with reading the experiment sheets; some require pre-work before the laboratory lecture. For more efficient learning, reading the experiment sheets and related book pages before the experiments is recommended. Analysis before and during the experiments is required for the initial design and subsequent iteration.

Figure 5

Figure 5 Antenna laboratory lecture process steps with BBA education hardware.



Some lecturers may prefer to use CEM software tools instead of analytical calculations, assigning the same antenna designs via CEM software tools as pre-work. Both analytical calculations and CEM software tools are effective in the initial design step. Experiment sheets guide students to use the appropriate antenna cells and materials. Some experiments guide students to build specific antennas, while some assign more challenging tasks, to build an optimized antenna with the highest impedance bandwidth, for example. Students use network analyzers to observe changes in reflection coefficients by adding or removing antenna cells or by totally changing their designs.

The BBA training kit provides a means to teach antenna design to students in time-limited antenna laboratory lectures. Students can design a different antenna type during each lecture session. Designing several antenna types provides a better understanding of elementary antenna principles, providing an opportunity to fail, rebuild the structure and actively learn. It covers all steps of the active learning process:29-31 sketch-design-build-measure-repeat. It also includes the antenna design and fabrication steps in one product. Students can either simulate their designs with CEM software or calculate dimensions analytically, then easily build and iterate their designs directly using a network analyzer. Once designs meet the S-parameter requirements given by their experiment sheets, students can measure the far-field parameters. The experiments are structured for maximum three-hour laboratory classes, which provides ample time to complete and test the final designs.

COMPARING DIFFERENT ANTENNA TEACHING METHODS

Figure 6 compares the steps in the industrial antenna design process to the corresponding steps using the different antenna teaching methods. Each method is effective for teaching certain elements. A project-based antenna design education, including antenna fabrication, covers five of these steps. Classical antenna laboratory lectures cover only one step. The new methods of antenna teaching, such as video and web classes, provide a theoretical education that increases the training efficiency of just one important step in the antenna design.

Figure 6

Figure 6 Comparison of the antenna design process with several antenna education methods.

BBA training education covers six steps. Distinct from the other methods, this concept offers students a realistic product design experience. Students can design, build, measure, fail, redesign, rebuild, remeasure, re-fail and finally succeed through “multi-design proto cycles.”30 The difference in education at universities versus working in the industry is that universities principally teach solving a problem in one step, where engineers use multiple steps to design and develop a product in industry. The advantage of BBA laboratory lectures is that they teach iterative design principles within the time-limited antenna laboratory lectures. This builds iteration in the design cycle, which is different from iteration within CEM tools. Another advantage: while project-based antenna design may cover only one antenna design in a semester, the brick-based hardware method can expose students to six to 10 different antenna designs, providing students the opportunity to actively design several antenna types and thoroughly understand their working principles.

CONCLUSION

Both project-based and BBA training methods cover more steps in the antenna design process than classical antenna laboratory lectures by themselves. They both provide students with hands-on experience. BBA training covers similar steps as project-based antenna teaching with one important difference: it includes iteration in the design process. Students iterate their designs as they would in their future working lives. Iteration teaches the antenna design process and a hardware design process.

BBA training enables the design of several different antenna types. Students can design, build and measure six to 10 antennas in one semester, which provides broader exposure to the field. An antenna engineer must know the working principles of many types of elementary antennas to design complex antennas, because complex antennas generally comprise multiple elementary antennas. The BBA training method motivates students with an enjoyable structure and teaches antenna design and measurement in a better and more comprehensive way than other teaching methods.

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