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Innovations at Airbus Defence and Space may pave the way for change in how aerospace companies design and manufacture metal radio-frequency (RF) filters and waveguides.

Building upon research funded by the European Space Agency, Airbus worked with 3D Systems to produce the first metal 3D printed RF filter to be tested and validated for use in commercial telecommunications satellites. The results of the work were published in a case study titled "First Air-Worthy Metal Printed RF Filter Ready for Take-Off".

High-capacity satellites can carry nearly 500 RF filters and more than 600 waveguides, many of which are custom-designed to handle specific frequencies. The 3D Systems ProX® DMP 320 used in the Airbus RF filter project enables manufacturers to consolidate parts, improve functionality with shapes and surfaces not possible to manufacture with traditional means, lower production time and costs for customized designs, and reduce weight while maintaining or improving material strength.

"The main benefits of a monolithic design enabled by 3D printing are mass, cost and time," says Paul Booth, the RF engineer for Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, United Kingdom. "The mass is reduced because there is no longer the requirement to have fasteners. With direct metal printing there is also the no-cost bonus to have the outer profile more closely follow the inner profile, so only the really necessary metal needs to be used. The cost/time benefit comes from the reduction in assembly and post-processing."

With accelerated turnaround time, reduced production costs, and a stunning 50% weight reduction that imparts greater efficiency to the overall system, the Airbus project delivered the kind of ROI that puts a glimmer in a CFO's eyes.

"The success of this project opens up the possibility of much greater integration of RF filters with mechanical and thermal components to reduce part count and overall mass," says Booth. "We will also look at integrating more functionality such as test-couplers as part of the filter or directly integrated into waveguide runs. There is a huge potential for reducing mass while cutting production time and costs."

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