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Last month, when I heard about Motorola’s “Project Ara”—an initiative to create a modular smartphone—I was both excited and extremely curious about how the Google-owned cell phone company would overcome the technical hurdles the project would surely face. While there are still plenty of questions about how, or if, Project Ara will ever come to market, today Motorola announced a partnership with 3D printing company 3D Systems.

The agreement will bring the two companies together to “create a continuous high-speed 3D printing production platform and fulfilment system.” That will include 3D Systems finding ways to create 3D printed parts out of all-new kinds of materials using, as the press release calls them, “conductive and functional materials.”

3D Systems’ president and CEO, Avi Reichental, offered up a statement on the partnership:

“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 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.”

This is great news for fans of the Project Ara concept. Obviously it’s still too early to know what will come of this partnership, but there are a lot of exciting implications. For starters, the partnership itself is a sign that the initiative is moving forward. But more than that, this has the potential to truly make the customizable smartphone concept even more customizable than it had seemed before.

While 3D printers are far from widespread technology, the devices are becoming more and more affordable, and the practice is becoming more widespread each year. If the process of making parts for a Project Ara phone becomes available to home users, the possibilities for a truly open source smartphone are pretty staggering.

Of course, there are obvious hurdles to such a thing actually happening. For one, 3D printing is tricky when it comes to patents and copyrights and the like—once you have the plans to make something, you don’t really need to buy the thing again. All you have to do is re-print it. Would Motorola and Google want to sell one-time print-plans for Project Ara parts? Wouldn’t it be better to license the ability to print and sell parts to certain companies and sellers? Or will the process by which printing Project Ara parts be too difficult to replicate on a small scale?

Whatever the answer is, there’s no question that this project is continuing to move forward, and that’s extremely exciting.


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