updated 01:56 pm EST, Fri November 22, 2013
3D Systems developing 3D printing line for Project Ara module construction
Motorola's modular smartphone has taken one more step into becoming a reality, thanks to a multi-year agreement with a manufacturing partner. 3D Systems has agreed to create a "continuous high-speed 3D printing production platform" for Project Ara, and ultimately creating modules as "Motorola's exclusive fulfillment partner" if it completes the platform's development.
As part of the deal, 3D Systems will have to upgrade and expand its existing multi-material 3D printing capabilities, including printing with conductive materials. It also plans to combine both additive and subtractive manufacturing methods to create all possible modules for a complete smartphone. Regina Dugan, senior vice president and head of Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects group, advises that to create the smartphone, it "requires technical advances in areas such as material strength and printing with conductive inks for antennas," advances that must also be able to work at "production-level speeds and volumes."
The basic idea of Project Ara is for a mobile phone to be created by the user combining modules together on a single structural frame. Each module can be switched out for another component, allowing smartphones to be constructed with the specific user in mind. For example, someone may want to add modules for higher storage capacities and faster processing, while at the same time replacing the camera with an extra battery. If a module is damaged with the rest of the device working fine, just the faulty component could be swapped out for another, something which could in theory save on repair costs.
A full production run of a modular smartphone is not likely to occur for a number of years, though the Google-owned phone producer is attempting to encourage development in the "free, open hardware platform" by sending out an alpha release of the Module Developer's Kit sometime this winter.