Google's Motorola signs hardware partner 3D Systems for Project Ara modular phone program

Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Motorola Mobile unit has inked a deal with 3D printing company 3D Systems to serve as its hardware partner for Project Ara, Motorola's plan to create modular smartphones.

3D Systems confirmed the multi-year partnership and said it is working with Motorola to "create a continuous high-speed 3D printing production platform and fulfillment system" for Project Ara. "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," 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental said in a statement.

3D Systems said it plans to substantially expand its multi-material 3D printing capabilities, including conductive and functional materials. If the development phase of the partnership is successful, 3D Systems said it is "expected to manufacture 3D-printed Ara smartphone enclosures and modules as Motorola's exclusive fulfillment partner."

Project Ara, which Motorola unveiled in late October, is being spearheaded by the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects group, the unit led by Regina Dugan, a former DARPA chief. Project Ara has been in the works for more than a year and its goal is audacious in the same way Google's Project Loon is for expanding Internet access via balloons.

Analysts have expressed some skepticism with Project Ara, especially because similar ones have failed in the past. In effect, Motorola wants to give end users the ability to retrofit and continually customize the hardware of their smartphones. The core of Ara is an endoskeleton (endo) and modules. The endo is the structural frame that holds all the modules in place. A module can be anything from a new chipset, display, keyboard or sensor. The project is similar in many ways to Phonebloks, a venture unveiled in September, and Motorola is working with Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks.

Project Ara will be working with the Phonebloks community throughout its development process as well as "Scouts" or volunteers who will be testing the concept. Motorola said in a few months it will also send an invitation to developers to start creating modules for the Ara platform (and may provide prizes). Motorola expects to have an alpha release of the Module Developer's Kit (MDK) sometime this winter.

For more:
- see this release
- see this The Verge article
- see this AllThingsD article

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