Telecommunications is defined as the transfer of information over long distances via some electronic form, including phones, microwave communications, fiber optics, satellites, radio and TV broadcasting, and the internet. Over the past several years, the telecom industry has seen many changes and emerging reliance on digital communication. This incorporates messaging and voice through WhatsApp, Viber, Apple’s iMessage, and even Skype. In fact, services via these applications account for 80% of all messaging traffic.
As intense competition takes shape in this industry, telecom companies seek new ways to increase efficiency. Aside from simplification of advertising and marketing efforts and digitization of services, telecom companies are undergoing substantial network upgrades. Many improvements come in the form of 3D printed telecommunication equipment. Everything from satellites to microwave filters and fiber optic cables are being digitally printed to replace the traditional materials used in the telecom industry. Now, this is one of the world’s largest and fastest growing industries, and companies pursuing modernization via 3D printing research and development of telecommunications are eligible for state and federal R&D tax credits.
The Research & Development Tax Credit
Enacted in 1981, the Federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:
- New or improved products, processes, or software
- Technological in nature
- Elimination of uncertainty
- Process of experimentation
Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.
3D Printed Satellite Parts
In recent years, global research and development efforts have focused on 3D printing of satellite parts. These new parts are applicable to communication satellites that orbit the Earth. For example, in 2016, Thales Alenia Space and Poly-Shape partnered to create the largest 3D printed support structures for satellites. The structures are used by South Korea’s communication satellites called the Koreasat-5A and Koreasat-7. The new, 3D printed, lightweight antenna supports facilitate the satellites to communicate with the bases on Earth. These supports weigh merely 1.5kg, which is comparably less compared to components made by other materials and methods. It was found there was a “22% weight saving for the bionic AM structure compared to a conventionally-manufactured structure. Not forgetting the reduction in costs of around 30% with the finished part also being available very early.” As one can see, the benefits of 3D printing satellite parts has a significant impact on the success, profitability, and modernization of telecom companies.
Thales Alenia Space continues to provide numerous 3D printed satellite parts to telecom companies, including varying antenna supports, reflector fittings, and Iridium NEXT satellites with 3D printed propulsion system tube supports. One AM Technology Development Manager at TAS explains, “Our development efforts are now focusing on integrating several functions in a single part, such as mechanical, thermal, and radio-frequency functions.” This company continues to pursue R&D efforts that incorporate 3D printing parts to facilitate commercial satellite modernization and improvement.
Overall, 3D printed satellite parts result in an average 50% reduction in mass and schedule. Another company called SSL (Space Systems Loral) designs and manufactures satellites for TV, broadband, internet, and mobile communications. It turned to 3D printing in an effort to offer more affordable, effective, and modernized telecommunication equipment to telecom companies. On March 7, 2017, SSL announced that its most complex antenna tower currently in orbit on a satellite is functioning as expected. The company’s Chief Technology Officer explains, “Our advanced antenna tower structures enable us to build high-performance satellites that would not be possible without tools such as 3D printing.: SSL has taken its R&D to the next level by designing and manufacturing 13 other satellite structures. It expects to continue expanding 3D printing of satellite parts since this process greatly reduces cost and time of production.
University Research in 3D Printed Telecommunication Filters and Capacitive Plates
Recent University of South Florida efforts resulted in successful 34-minute 3D printing of 2.45GHz miniaturized square open loop resonator bandpass (SOLR) filters common in communication technology. In actuality, the filter has a measured resonance of 2.35GHz because of a 5% tolerance with capacitors in this design. A bandpass filter is an electronic device or circuit that transfers signals between two frequencies, disregarding all other frequencies. It was found that when the filters are made with 3D printed substrates, the current in the microstrip circuit does not concentrate on the bulk of the transmission line, which results in lower effective conductivity. 3D printing is a feasible process to make these filters, as concluded by the research study. It permits the designer to create custom transmission lines and filters, which is unparalleled in traditional circuit board development.
The ability to 3D print microwave circuitry is invaluable because now manufacturers can create more efficient and smaller multidimensional plates and filters. 3D printing also makes it easier to embed electronics in a structure or conform electronics to a non-uniform, unconventional surface. Finally, 3D printing filters and capacitive plates makes it possible to replicate certain traditional designs, such as commercial antennae handsets, or create new and innovative ones.
The Benefits of 3D Printing Microwave Components
3D printing of electronics, microwave circuits, and wireless antennas has led to increased design flexibility and improvements for telecom companies. There are several advantages of 3D printed radio frequency and microwave components. The primary benefit is that it permits for rapid manufacturing of complex, dimensional, and sensitive circuits that include antennas and filters. 3D printing also offers the ability to create devices that cannot be made via standard fabrication techniques. 3D printing is applicable in largescale microwave production that includes copper electroless-plated devices, electron beam melt antennas, waveguide structures, and microwave meta-material structures.
University of Texas at El Paso research indicates differences between 3D printing components with fused deposition modeling (FDM) versus stereolithography (SL or SLA). FDM results in lower microwave loss but lower print resolution and a rougher surface finish. On the other hand, SL results in excellent resolution and a smooth surface finish but more microwave loss. Future research ought to investigate these differences more to suggest the optimal 3D printed microwave components that will enhance telecommunications. The W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation at the University of Texas at El Paso offers a broad selection of additive manufacturing technologies and materials which are selected for measurement based on availability and estimated suitability for microwave device fabrication. The Keck Center pursues development through FDM and SL.
3D printed SL material is used to build transmission lines, the building blocks of microwave circuits. The values in resistivity and loss tangent are higher than in conventional microwave circuit material, since 3D printing allows for extreme design flexibility and circuit layout. Furthermore, 3D printed microwave striplines from SL materials have clear advantages over microstrip lines based on loss of frequency, even at higher frequencies such as 12GHz. There is substantial evidence that development of lower loss, high frequency RF and microwave transmission lines is possible and preferred with 3D SL printing.
Existing efforts have been made to 3D print large antennas as well as small, flexible antennas put inside wireless smart objects. With 3D printing, manufacturers have the ability to integrate antennas into a structure that increases its efficiency but also allows the designer to depart from reliance on a single cramped circuit board layout.
3D Printed Fiber Optics Modernize the Telecom Industry
In the UK, researchers are developing 3D printed optical fibers for fiber optic cables. The preform process of 3D printing the core of the cable is simplified and “can be used to produce complex preforms, which are otherwise too difficult, too time-consuming, or currently impossible to be achieved by existing fabrication techniques,” according to a professor at the Optoelectronics Research Center. Such development has the potential to change telecommunications, offering less expensive and more customizable designs of industry cables. Traditional fabrication techniques are timely, costly, and limiting in materials and shape of the finished cable. However, with 3D printing, it is possible to create uniquely-shaped fiber optic cables without compromising on integrity or quality.
The University of Sydney was the first to produce 3D printed fiber optic cables for telecommunication purposes. It is anticipated that by printing preforms for fiber optics layer by layer, researchers will have more precise control over each preform’s internal structure. This means each fiber can be customized in shape and design.
In today’s technology-oriented world, people rely on communication technologies to stay in contact but also to engage in daily activities. The telecom industry is rapidly changing in order to keep up with the populations’ demands. Now, as most telecommunications move to a digital foundation via mobile applications like WhatsApp and iMessage, traditional telecom companies are scrambling to modernize their systems. As a result, many resort to 3D print telecommunications equipment. The most recent 3D printing efforts lead to the creation of more advanced and customizable microwave, fiber optics, satellites, filters, and capacitive parts that will undoubtedly modernize traditional telecommunications equipment. Now, companies engaging in 3D printing telecommunications innovations are eligible for state and federal R&D tax credits.
Charles Goulding and Chloé Margulis of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing applications in shared office spaces.