Quick reminder: the modular smartphone is a real thing that's really happening. Motorola blew our minds with the announcement of a plan to create modular phones not totally unlike the Phonebloks concept, and now the manufacturer is one step closer to making some real hardware. 3D Systems, makers of the Cube 3D printer and similar equipment, is Motorola's first partner on the Project Ara.

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So what does that mean? Motorola needs some way of adding flexibility to a traditionally rigid manufacturing process, and 3D printing would seem to be a natural solution. According to the press release, 3D Systems will be Moto's "exclusive fulfillment partner" for both Ara enclosures/frames and the individual modules that make up the replaceable hardware components, assuming there are no major issues with the development phase of the project.

3D Systems says that they are investigating conductive and functional materials, but Motorola will probably need to outsource at least some of the parts and manufacturing to hardware suppliers. Also remember that the Ara platform is supposed to be open at the hardware level, meaning that other companies (or even individuals, if they've got the right equipment and skills) should be able to make modules that are compatible with Ara phones.

Time frames for something like this are always a bit on the nebulous side, but Motorola's original Ara announcement implied that an early version of the Module Developer's Kit would be going out to selected developers this winter. Perhaps these devs will be able to submit finished designs to 3D Systems and/or Motorola for production. Naturally, we'll be keeping a very close eye on Ara news.

Source: 3D Systems via The Verge

ROCK HILL, South Carolina –November 22, 2013 – 3D Systems  (NYSE:DDD) has entered into a multi-year development agreement with Motorola Mobility LLC, A Google Company, to create a continuous high-speed 3D printing production platform and fulfilment system in support of Motorola’s Project Ara. Project Ara aims to develop highly-custom, modular smartphones that afford users the opportunity to make functional and aesthetic choices about their device.

“With Project Ara, we asked the question, ‘How do we bring the benefits of customization and an open hardware ecosystem to 6 billion people?’ That is our driving application. It requires technical advances in areas such as material strength and printing with conductive inks for antennas. And those advances must support production-level speeds and volumes, which is a natural partnership with 3D Systems,” said Regina Dugan, Senior Vice President and head of Motorola’s Advanced Technology & Projects group.

“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. “3D printing promotes a level of sustainability, functionality, and mass personalization that turns these kinds of global ambitions into attainable local realities. Project Ara combines two exponential technologies, and we expect that the resulting high-throughput advanced manufacturing platform will have far reaching implications on the entire digital thread that stitches together the factory of the future.”

As part of this agreement, 3D Systems plans to substantially expand its multi-material printing capabilities including conductive and functional materials. The company also plans to combine additive and subtractive manufacturing methods, and deliver an integrated high-speed production platform. Pending successful completion of the development phase, 3D Systems is expected to manufacture 3D-printed Ara smartphone enclosures and modules as Motorola’s exclusive fulfillment partner.

Motorola and 3D Systems, the inventors of the cell phone and 3D printer, respectively, have previously partnered on the MAKEwithMOTO tour, a series of make-a-thons at the nation’s top engineering and design schools aimed at exploiting the power of open, hackable smartphone hardware and 3D printing to begin seeding an open hardware ecosystem.