A US university professor revealed his research team used 3D printing technology to build a new breed of 5G antennas which could ultimately deliver kit that is smaller and cheaper to produce than today’s equipment.

Mark Mirotznik, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Delaware, told Mobile World Live (MWL) the use of 3D printing techniques helps eliminate geometrical design challenges and provides access to new construction materials.

“For technologies like wearables and things like that, it means we don’t have to have flat electronics anymore or flat antennas, it can be flexible. So for those applications, it’s really novel that you can actually print all of this stuff on a flexible membrane. It opens up new possibilities.”

Mirotznik added 3D printing (specifically, NanoParticle Jetting technology offered by XJet) is the only manufacturing technique capable of meeting the production demands of a new kind of passive beam steering 5G antenna designed by his team.

Rather than the typical phased array, Mirotznik said the design (pictured, right, click to enlarge) employs a modified Luneburg lens made of ceramic to allow for wide-angle beam steering at mmWave frequencies.

He told MWL NanoParticle Jetting “is the only process capable of producing the inner walls of each channel with the accuracy and smoothness required to retain wave direction…Quite literally, any tiny variation in tolerance could lead to diversion of the signal to the wrong place, and that couldn’t be afforded.”

By eliminating the expensive electronics associated with phased arrays and using ceramic, which costs less than the traditional polymers, Mirotznik said the design could yield smaller, cheaper 5G antennas.

Mirotznik said his team successfully tested a prototype of its design using traditional polymers, but is still working to perfect the ceramic version. He added he’s not yet had any serious discussions with major operators or equipment vendors about adopting the solution.

And he acknowledged scaling a finished design based on additive manufacturing could also be a challenge. “It’s unclear to me how it would scale to mass production. It’s possible, it’s just current technology on this stuff hasn’t really reached the scale for mass production.”

He noted, however, similar concerns about mass production in the early days of integrated circuits were eventually solved.

“If there is a market and people see this as a viable way to do things there’s no other way to do, I think people will figure out a way to do it.”