With the latest advancements brought upon by more research and development, aerospace antenna design has continued to steer away from traditional manufacturing materials and methods.
According to an article featured by Military & Aerospace Electronics, the three main goals for selecting technologies for aerospace and defense are 1) ruggedness, 2) low-loss, and 3) cost-effectiveness.
Naturally, all flight-qualified antennas need to be rugged enough to withstand mechanical shock, vibration, and atmospheric factors. Also, it is generally important for any antenna to transmit and receive radio waves with as little energy loss (return loss) as possible. Higher loss may cause the antenna to overheat and can degrade its sensitivity.
Creating specialized aerospace antennas, especially those used for military and defense, must be a streamlined and repeatable process. Whenever mass production is involved, it is imperative to keep manufacturing costs as low as possible. While machined aluminum and hand-built thermoset radomes have made for very reliable antennas, fabricating such components often involve multiple steps—more labor and more machining means more cost.
Aside from yielding higher costs, another drawback of machined aluminum chassis is the added weight. Composite materials, on the other hand, are not only comparatively lighter, but also come in injection-moldable forms that allow for intricate design with higher repeatability.
Composite substrates can also be tailored to specific applications by using a variety of fillers, which have their own dielectric properties. These fillers range from carbon and glass fibers to foaming agents. Conductive-fiber fillers can absorb energy radiated in unwanted directions, increasing antenna gain by decreasing interference.
Most of JEM Engineering’s line of flight-qualified antennas are designed with carefully selected composite substrates, making them effective, rugged, yet extremely lightweight.
Conductive coatings metallize materials such as plastics, chemically resistant composites, glass, and ceramics, in order to create conformal antennas on nearly any shape at minimal cost. High-quality conductive coatings meet flight-qualification standards.
In another post, we described how additive manufacturing is used in prototyping antennas. Mainly, it allows for reduced material waste, lower manufacturing costs, faster turnaround, and more design complexity.
Magnetic Flux Channel Technology
Developed by JEM Engineering, MFC antennas do not utilize electric charge to achieve radiation. Instead, the magnetic flux that resides in the MFC core shapes and supports an efficient form of magnetic polarization current in a specially designed flux channel. Unlike conventional antennas, the MFC may be placed directly on, or even within, conducting structure with no ill-effects on radiation or impedance match performance. For communications in the VHF/UHF bands (30 MHz to 3 GHz) MFC antennas can provide equivalent performance to conventional. To learn more, read our blog post on our proprietary MFC technology.
Over the past 16 years, JEM Engineering has designed and manufactured an extensive product line of antennas, ranging from frequencies between 2 MHz to 40 GHz. We pride ourselves in our ability to not only innovate and create new designs, but also to continue to improve upon existing products. We are committed to not only delivering better performance but also manufacturing them more efficiently and sustainably.
As we discussed in a previous post, before we can manufacture, we must prototype. For this step in the process, we are beginning to explore additive manufacturing, or as it’s more commonly known, 3D printing.
Why additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing)
As the name suggests, additive manufacturing involves successively adding thin layers of material together to form a three-dimensional embodiment of a computer aided design (CAD) model. Traditional manufacturing, on the other hand, is normally subtractive. Again, one may infer that in traditional manufacturing, the material (plastic, metal, fiberglass, etc.) is carved, cut, or hollowed out either by hand or using a machine to form the final structure.
Reducing material waste. While modern technology has vastly improved subtractive manufacturing, it still has its limitations. One of which is the amount of material waste it creates. 3D printed materials are produced according to the specifications of a digital file, such as a CAD (Computer Aided Design) model created using a modeling software. Alternatively, 3D scanners can scan a solid object and the printing machine can reproduce the object’s shape. Both methods allow the machine to create an exact blueprint to print, leaving little to no excess material.
Increased cost-effectiveness. Reducing the cost of materials and labor makes for lower expenses for the rest of the supply chain as well. Manufacturers, not unlike JEM Engineering, must source product components and building materials from qualified vendors. More often than not, there are costly NRE (non-recurring engineering) costs associated with custom components, and in some cases, additional tooling costs whenever previously used tools have worn out. While in the prototyping stage, it is common for there to be a few or even several different revisions made to any single custom component. As one can imagine, such revisions can restart entire processes, including the tooling. More processes = more labor and more materials = more cost. Most importantly, the cost to the manufacturer also drives the cost to the customer.
Faster turnaround. Rapid prototyping is one of the primary applications of 3D printing. The aforementioned tooling processes not only cost money but often take a lot of time, especially if during the course of the prototyping stage, revisions are made. With 3D printing, once a revision is made to the digital model, a new physical model can be printed out almost as quickly. The faster the turnaround time of prototyping and production, the sooner the end user will receive the finished product.
More complexity. Within certain constraints, such as size, there is almost no limit to the complexity of shapes that a 3D printer can produce. With this capability comes more creative freedom and innovation. Also, more objects can be made as a single piece, making it more durable. Imagine a car with a chassis made of one single piece, whereas with traditional manufacturing, it would have been several pieces welded together.
How additive manufacturing will shape antenna design
All factors considered, 3D printing unlocks nearly unlimited possibilities for antenna design. Using this technology, our engineers can design antennas in a larger variety of forms to suit our clients’ needs. Perhaps just as importantly, these custom products can be produced faster and at a better value, without compromising quality and performance.
Every product, specialty or off-the-shelf, must be designed, tested, and perfected by a team of experts, so that the end-user can be assured of its reliability.
The same applies to antenna design.
Our customers trust us to provide them with custom products, many of which have never been made in the past –or even conceptualized.
In this post, we share some of our antenna designing know-how…
1. Knowing where to start. Every single one of our antennas started out as a concept. Either a client or one of our own engineers wanted a device that could deliver a specific result, and our team worked to bring that concept to full-scale production. Our experts find out what the client is looking for, and quickly figure out how to make it happen. Our engineers have several decades of combined experience creating detailed drawings from 2-dimensional drafts to 3-dimensional CAD models.
2. Performing a structural analysis. Naturally, one would want to make sure that the antenna design doesn’t just look good on paper, but it also holds together, at the very least. However, it would be preferable to detect design flaws before spending money on building materials. For instance, COSMOS Static Analysis is an cost-effective way to perform a structural analysis on a computer-generated model, such as a SolidModel. We use this method to assess the feasibility of custom antenna design projects.
3. Developing a prototype. Before one builds the final product, they must create a prototype to not only further evaluate a design, but to also establish the most efficient assembly methods for it, and assess the cost effectiveness of its bill of materials. This also leads us to the next item on the list…
4. Using the right materials. The difference between selecting one material over another can not only mean cost savings, but also overall better performance and longevity. Our mechanical engineers excel at finding the best materials for a project, measurably increasing the practicality of a product.
5. Seeing the prototype in action. So now it’s time to test the prototype. Before the product can go out into the field, it has to perform well in the lab. In our case, the antenna has to be carefully tested in one of our two test chambers by a well-trained and highly-skilled technician, who will provide guidance and support during the test, as well as assist with data analysis and interpretation. In a previous post, we explore antenna qualification in more detail. Read it here.
In summary, designing a functional and structurally sound antenna has many crucial and complicated processes. Luckily, we can help you every step of the way! JEM Engineering staffs a Mechanical Engineering department capable of providing expertise to every antenna design. Send us an inquiry or call us at 301.317.1070 to let us know what you need!
Quality & Customer Service – Our Policy
JEM Engineering exceeds customer expectations by providing custom antenna design, manufacturing and testing solutions with a commitment to comply with customer requirements and continually improve the effectiveness of the quality management system by maintaining a motivated, highly skilled and innovative team, and becoming a leader in our industry. Our commitment to quality is evident as our Quality Management System (QMS) is ISO 9001 Certified.