Last year, in a demonstration of the capabilities of 3D printing, astronauts on the International Space Station deployed a 3D-printed satellite. Inspired by this satellite, a UK-based company used the same high-tech printing technology to manufacture wave guides for telecom satellites. Just recently, launch aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9, PT Telkom Indonesia’s Merah Putih communication satellite was built using 3D-printed components. And so it goes with many other companies within the telecom sector, 3D printing has more and more become an answer for complex fabrication and manufacturing solutions.
In fact, additive for 3D printing in the telecom industry is going to ramp up the adoption curve as 5G infrastructure spreads across the nation thanks to a recent ruling by the FCC. The reason why 3D printing will increase compared to conventional manufacturing is due to the fact that telecommunication components are expensive to prototype, fabricate and install as these parts are geometrically intricate and complex. Thus, using additive technology allows telecommunication companies like cable operators the ability to upload schematics into a platform and precisely manufacture the part efficiently and quickly. Essentially, 3D printing can become a factory in a box for telecom companies.
Overall, the 3D printing industry is forecast to reach $17 billion by 2020, and will be a crux of phasing out traditional supply chain to a more digital manufacturing world. One area that has received a lot of attention within the Telecom sector is the spare parts business. Additive printing could revolutionize the industry with more tailored, on-demand and agile delivery. A 3D prototype process would cut down on warehousing and reduce wasted company costs.
3D Printing can handle telecommunications manufacturing issues that are large or small.
For example, MIMO antennas, or multiple input/multiple output, are required technology for communication circuits and recently a few companies in the industry have experimented with a high-resolution stereolithography 3D printer capable of fabricating photosensitive resin components that are both exact and even enhance frequency characteristics.
Optomec is New Mexico company that is also specializing in using additive printing to create everything from mass market smartphone components to common electronic materials to the wings of an airplane. The company has also expanded their 3D printed offerings into the important IoT segment specifically antennas and a variety of substrates.
On the truly micro size, fiber optic technology is essential to our daily lives and will be even more so as 5G advances. These bundled cables that lie on the ocean floor are usually cylindrical, but new fiber optic cables called Photonic bandgap fiber allow for more elaborate structuring and lowered cost.
On a much larger scale, Orange Silicon Valley, an innovation center for the leading French telecommunication company, unveiled at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference a low-cost 3D-printed wind turbine. Made by Omni3D, who manufactures the Factory 2.0 printer, Orange demonstrated the use of materials that are attainable and affordable. For the first several prototypes of the micro-turbines, each segment of the blade, measuring half a meter, was made with ABS, a common thermoplastic polymer similar to LEGOs, and feature a unique honeycomb design that is actually 93% air. These turbines are designed to bring green energy to urban areas and connect hard to reach communities.
“The vision is to create a rapid functional prototype with industrial grade 3D printer from OMNI3D and machine-to-machine connectivity with Orange SIM cards with global connectivity,” said Soumik Sinharoy, a product manager at Orange Silicon Valley.
In short, 3D printing can add to any business’ value chain, but the telecom industry is rife with areas of innovation and improvement. This technology has been around for around 30 years, but as 5G rolls out and more environments turn “smart” and digital, additive printing – with all its applications and cost-efficiency- could finally begin to breakout.