WASHINGTON — Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions announced Tuesday an exclusive agreement for American military equipment with SWISSto12, a firm specializing in the 3D printing of radio frequency and electronics technologies.
The move positions CAES — the 54th largest defense firm in the world, according to the most recent Defense News Top 100 list — to knock down costs and weight for radio frequency parts used in space systems and radars, according to Dave Young, the company’s chief technology officer. The business rebranded to its shortened name last year.
Additive manufacturing, another name for 3D printing, fits in well with the company’s existing portfolio, said Young, who joined CAES in January after stints at Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, where he most recently was vice president of advanced program developments in the space sector.
“I think this is going to be something that the space world will initially be interested in, [but] as you get into the higher technology, like fire-control radars and things like that, electronic warfare systems, there’s going to be a play,” Young said. “And the good news is CAES plays across that realm. So although we’re getting a lot of excitement in the space side, we’re going to see movement across our products in terms of the use of this technology.”
The technology has long been of interest for the defense and aerospace worlds. Objects made with 3D printing can be lighter, tougher and cheaper to produce, as they can be built from the ground up in a way that traditional manufacturing, which is essentially carving shapes out of large blocks of substances, cannot. The technology has proved useful for large pieces of planes, for example, but is less successful when it comes to highly sensitive technologies.
While there have been some experiments with additive manufacturing for radio frequency parts, Young downplayed them, citing the fact that the parts generally must be smoothed out and worked over to get the correct radio frequency tolerances. This ultimately results in a situation where traditional manufacturing is cheaper and easier.
The SWISSto12 process is different, said Emile de Rijk, CEO and co-founder of the Lausanne, Switzerland-based firm. He described a patented, three-step process.
First the company wrote new software for 3D printers that gets parts as closer to radio frequency ready than commercially available 3D-printing software. “They’re not perfect, but they’re different from how they would come out normally,” de Rijk said. “A stronger emphasis has been put on getting higher surface accuracies onto those parts.”
Second, the company developed a chemical etching process where “you dip the parts in a series of baths that rework the surface finish to get them to the next layer of smoothness and accuracy.” And finally, the company finishes the parts with metal plating, usually copper or silver, for situations where “the customer is interested in getting the last little bit of performance out of the product to further improve the [radio frequency] RF performance of those products.”
SWISSto12 has established itself in Europe, and de Rijk said its designs are qualified by major defense firms such as Thales, Airbus, Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries. He added that there are more than 1,000 parts flying on systems in geostationary orbit, as well as on 50 aircraft designs and within the electronic warfare suites on eight battleships. Roughly a third of the company’s revenue comes from commercial space, with the other two-thirds coming from defense.
But the company has not made headway into the U.S. market, which is where the deal with CAES comes in. The agreement means that CAES is the exclusive purveyor of SWISSto12′s capabilities for U.S. prime companies, according to Young. The company defines U.S. firms as those that are certified by American-based companies; so even though the F-35 fighter jet has global customers, it would count for this agreement because Lockheed Martin is based in America.
The agreement is a partnership, not just SWISSto12 giving its designs to Cobham and walking away, de Rijk noted. “We won’t just throw [intellectual property] and technology over the ocean.”
Young predicted that some production for U.S. equipment will start this year, but added that the biggest agreements will take 12-18 months before production — a natural lag given the time frame it takes to design and produce a sensitive space system or high-end radar.
In terms of what parts may come from the team, Young said there is “a very relevant and near-term application for waveguides and interconnects,” key pieces that transfer information from active components to the digital backend.
He also expressed confidence there will be no issue with receiving certification from the Pentagon for defense articles, as the process would be done at the company level.
“The parts we’re talking about are not active. They’re passively transferring data between parts of the satellites, and they’re not generally load-bearing,” Young said. “So certification is pretty easy, as these things go.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.