On Friday, 3D Systems (DDD 3.80%) announced that it will be teaming up with Google's (GOOGL -0.68%) Motorola to work on Project Ara, which aims to create a modular and open-source-hardware platform for smartphones. Motorola has tasked 3D Systems with inventing a continuous, high-speed, 3-D printing production platform and fulfillment system for Ara's benefit. Together, these two powerhouses hold the potential to change how the world thinks about 3-D printing as a viable manufacturing solution, and also challenge how it thinks about buying smartphones.
Thanks to the use of differing modular components, Project Ara sees a future where users can freely customize and upgrade their devices to suit their individual needs. By opening up the platform to third-party developers, Ara takes the same approach to hardware that helped Andoird become so successful. Naturally, the hope is that Ara catches on like wildfire and becomes the hardware equivalent of Android. Judging by the growing base of 979,000 supporters for Phonebloks, a similar project that has since partnered with Project Ara, there's a good chance that this concept will be well received. From a manufacturing standpoint, the challenge will be getting Ara to market in an efficient and scalable manner.
The factory from the future
Due to the extremely customized nature of Project Ara, 3-D printing seems like an excellent manufacturing candidate to meet the customization and scalability requirements of Project Ara. The only problem is that the 3-D printing technology to make this happen doesn't exist yet.
In order for 3D Systems to create a 3-D printing "factory" that can handle the scale, speed, and level of technological sophistication necessary to achieve Ara's vision, it will have to rethink how it approaches 3-D printed finished-goods manufacturing. This primarily entails increasing print speeds, as well as significantly improving its multimaterial printing capabilities to incorporate the use of conductive materials. If successful, Project Ara will demonstrate to the world that 3-D printing can be a sophisticated manufacturing platform capable of handling production level speed and volume.
Change is certain
Projects like Ara continue to push the boundaries of 3-D printing, making it all but certain that the 3-D printers of tomorrow will be orders of magnitude more capable than today's cutting-edge printers. In addition, these types of projects challenge 3D Systems to drive longer term value to the 3-D printing supply chain. Conceivably, what 3D Systems learns from Project Ara can be applied to other manufacturers that wish to benefit from its newfound 3-D printing manufacturing expertise. The implications could be quite tremendous across the entire manufacturing sector.
At the end of the day, the key is to acknowledge that rapid change is likely coming to the 3-D printing industry. As a result, taking a longer-term view to the sector will likely serve you well because the true potential of 3-D printing still remains unknown. If Project Ara gives us any indication, there's certainly a lot of untapped potential to be realized.