Google's Motorola Mobility division and 3D Systems, a maker of 3D printing technology, on Friday said they had entered into a multiyear deal to create a platform for designing and distributing components for Motorola's Project Ara.
Project Ara represents Motorola Mobility's attempt to bring the relative openness and extensibility of Android software to hardware. It aspires to be "a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones."
If successful, the project will result in a set of mobile phone pieces that can be snapped together like Lego blocks, enabling possibilities beyond the fixed set of capabilities in mobile phones with limited extensibility.
To make notions of freedom and openness meaningful beyond the relatively small pool of people capable of designing and fabricating Ara-compatible electronics, Motorola and 3D Systems intend to allow individuals to "print" electronic components and assemble them into discrete modules that will work with Ara phones. It's not immediately clear what expertise will be necessary to make a unique Project Ara component, but the goal is to accommodate those who are not professional hardware engineers and industrial designers.
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Regina Dugan, senior VP and head of Motorola's Advanced Technology & Projects group, describes the partnership as a way to reach the component production speed and volume that will be necessary to enable Project Ara's promise of open, mass customization.
"Project Ara was conceived to build a platform that empowers consumers all over the world with customization for a product made by and for the individual," said Avi Reichental, president and CEO of 3D Systems, in a statement.
As a consequence of the agreement, 3D Systems expects to augment its ability to print multiple materials: Plastic resin alone is insufficient to make a functioning electronic device; you need conductive materials like metal, too. It will also be working on integrating additive and subtractive manufacturing techniques to create complex, multisubstance components at a reasonable rate.
All this will take some time. "We expect at least 12 months of development and commercial use within a few years," a spokesperson for 3D Systems said in an email.
The partnership is the second is as many months for Motorola Mobility and Project Ara. In October, the company said it had begun working with the Phonebloks community, a group created by designer Dave Hakkens to make mobile hardware more modular.
One of the goals of the project is to reduce the electronic waste created by discarded phones. A consequence of that could be reduced profitability for other phone makers: If smartphone users keep their devices for, say, four years rather than a year or two, fewer devices will be sold.
Such scenarios remain hypothetical given that Motorola Mobility has not committed to a delivery date for Project Ara and that market demand for modular phones has yet to be demonstrated. But if Project Ara phones prove competitive with traditional smartphones and lack glaring flaws, their flexibility and variation could redefine the mobile market.
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