3D-printed antennas developed by EEE researchers could bring 5G and 6G to remote communities

3D-printed radio antennas that could help bring stronger mobile phone signals and faster internet connections to people living in remote communities have been developed by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

Photograph of a young woman sitting on a rock looking into her phone
  • Researchers in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering have developed 3D-printed radio antennas that could be used to bring the fastest mobile phone networks to people living in remote areas
  • 3D-printed millimetre wave aerials are much quicker and cheaper to produce than those currently used by the telecommunications industry, but have the same level of performance
  • Development could help to drive innovation, speed up the production of new prototypes and make it easier to roll out new 5G and 6G infrastructure both in the UK and around the world

The millimetre wave (mmWave) aerials, which have been designed, made and tested by researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, have radio frequency performance that matches those produced using conventional manufacturing techniques. The 3D-printed antennas could speed up the development of new 5G and 6G infrastructure as well as help to open up access to the technologies for people living in remote areas, both in the UK and around the world.  

3D-printed radio antenna
3D-printed radio antennas

Antennas currently used to build telecommunication networks are typically slow and costly to manufacture. This is hindering innovation, delaying the development of prototypes and making it difficult to build new infrastructure. The researchers at Sheffield have developed a new design that enables radio antennas to be made much cheaper and faster using 3D printing without compromising on performance. The technique means antennas can be produced in as little as a few hours, for only a few pounds, but with similar performance capabilities as antennas manufactured in the conventional way which usually cost hundreds of pounds to create. 

Below are some 3D surface plots created at the measurement lab - these plots show a comparison between a traditionally manufactured example, and the 3D printed antenna created by the team at the University of Sheffield. The antennas use silver nanoparticles, which have excellent electrical properties for radio frequency, and have been tested at various frequencies used by 5G and 6G networks, up to 48 GHz. Their gain and time domain response - affecting the direction and strength of signal they can receive and transmit - is almost indistinguishable from those manufactured traditionally. 

Picture of measured antennas’ 3D surface plots
Picture of measured antennas’ 3D surface plots.

Eddie Ball, from the Communications Research Group at the University of Sheffield, said: 

This 3D-printed design could be a game changer for the telecommunications industry. It enables us to prototype and produce antennas for 5G and 6G networks at a far lower cost and much quicker than the current manufacturing techniques. The design could also be used to produce antennas on a much larger scale and therefore have the capability to cover more areas and bring the fastest mobile networks to parts of the world that have not yet had access.

Eddie Ball 

Reader in Radio Frequency Engineering at the University of Sheffield

Radio frequency testing of the antenna was performed using the University of Sheffield’s industry-leading UKRI National mmWave Measurement Lab. The mmWave measurement facility can measure systems on chip and antennas to 110GHz, which is invaluable for communications research, such as that carried out on the 3D-printed antenna. 

The team working on the 3D-printed antenna in the mmWave facility, all of whom are based within Sheffield Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, includes Matt Davies, Benedict Davies, Sumin David Joseph, Steve Marsden, Eddie Ball and Jon Willmott. The research was funded by the UK Government’s Defence and Security Accelerator and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

Photograph of Eddie Ball showing the lab to visitors during an open day at the mmWave facility
Eddie Ball showing the lab to visitors during an open day at the mmWave facility

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