Motorola Mobility is tapping into 3D printing as a way to make parts for user-customized smartphones, a concept being chased by the company under an initiative called Project Ara.
Motorola has signed a deal with 3D Systems, which will use 3D printing to make smartphone enclosures and other modules for the highly modular smartphones. 3D Systems, which makes custom parts using 3D printing, did not respond to a request for comment on the other parts it will supply.
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With Project Ara, Motorola hopes to provide a configurable smartphone in which users can add desired features by simply attaching modular parts. A skeleton frame of the phone will be provided, after which Lego-like blocks with different features can be attached or swapped out. For example, users will be able swap out a wireless antenna with a battery for longer run time.
The user-customized smartphone is still mostly just a concept; Motorola has not said when it would be released. Motorola has partnered with Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, who envisioned the open-hardware smartphone platform and called it Phonebloks.
3D printing involves taking a plastic filament, melting it and spitting it out -- much like an inkjet printer -- to make parts. That will be useful for cases, enclosures and perhaps printed circuit boards, but not for electronics, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates.
"It's great if you want a phone case the shape of New York City, and someone will be willing to pay for it," Gold said.
Making chips with complex circuitry or batteries with chemicals requires wires, metals and liquids, which calls for an array of advanced manufacturing technologies.
But bringing 3D printing technology to Project Ara is cool, Gold said. It points to a future where off-the-shelf products may go out of vogue in favor of highly customized products.
"But the technology is not there yet," Gold said.