What if you could assemble or update your own smartphone? Google-owned Motorola Mobility has announced a partnership with a 3D printing company as the next step in its effort to create modular smartphones.
On Friday, Motorola announced it had signed a multi-year development deal with 3D Systems, which creates custom parts using 3D printing, and that the end goal was a continuous, high-speed 3D printing production platform in support of modular smartphones.
The undertaking is dubbed Project Ara, and the central idea is that consumers can create new models simply by swapping out modular components on top of a skeletal framework, such as a component containing a wireless antenna with a battery that could be exchanged for one whose antenna had a wider reach and whose battery was longer lasting.
'Free, Open Hardware Platform'
Project Ara was announced last month by Motorola as a "free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones" that would foster a third-party developer ecosystem. Essentially, the idea is to provide an open-source, adaptable hardware version of Google's open-source mobile operating system, Android.
Regina Dugan, senior vice president and head of Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects Group, said in a statement accompanying the 3D Systems announcement that her company asked the question, "How do we bring the benefits of customization and an open hardware ecosystem to 6 billion people?" She acknowledged that getting there "requires technical advances in such areas as material strength and printing with conductive inks for antennas," not to mention production-level speeds and volumes.
3D Systems' President and CEO Avi Reichental told news media that the platform is intended to empower consumers "with customization for a product made by and for the individual."
A Truck Named Sticky
In the agreement with Motorola, Reichental's company has agreed to expand its multi-material printing capabilities to include conductive and functional materials, as well as additive and subtractive manufacturing methods, and to deliver an integrated high-speed production platform. After the development phase is completed, 3D Systems said it expected to manufacture smartphone enclosures and modules for Ara, as Motorola's exclusive fulfillment partner.
Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, who has independently developed a similar idea and named it PhoneBloks, is also partnering with Motorola on the project. On his Web site of the same name, Hakkens promotes his goal of building an open-source hardware platform.
There are, of course, some obstacles to overcome before you can begin mixing, matching and inventing. Motorola has not yet committed to releasing Project Ara as an actual product line. And, while it is steadily advancing, current 3D printing is primarily useful for molding plastic parts from melted plastic filament, which can make enclosures, solid components and even printed circuit boards, but not at the moment such parts as the screen.
This is not the first time that Motorola and 3D Systems have worked together. They partnered over the last six months on a MAKEwithMOTO tour that went to top engineering and design schools in the U.S. to elicit student and faculty interest in the idea of an open, hackable hardware ecosystem. The tour involved a truck named Sticky wrapped in Velcro, containing "hackable" Motorola smartphones and high-end 3D printers.