You've probably heard the news that Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) will sell most of its Motorola Mobility division to Lenovo (OTC:LNVGY) for $2.91 billion. On the surface, this allows Google to exit a maturing handset business and focus its efforts more on the Android ecosystem as a whole. Reading between the lines, it's clear that Google has kept the best parts of Motorola for itself, including the "vast majority" of its patent portfolio, as well as its advanced technology and projects group.

Within Motorola's advanced technology and projects group, there's Project Ara, a fully customizable modular handset concept that has big dreams of revolutionizing how the world buys smartphones.

Project Ara modular smartphone concept design. Source: Motorola.

Simple vision, difficult execution
By using different modular smartphone components, users can freely customize and upgrade their devices to their heart's content. In theory, strong user adoption for Project Ara could fundamentally change how the world thinks about buying and upgrading their mobile computing devices, all while significantly reducing the burden of electronic waste, which often finds its way into landfills. However, one of the biggest hurdles preventing Project Ara from getting off the ground boils down to creating a manufacturing solution that lends itself to the customized vision of the project.

That's where the magic of 3-D printing and 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) comes into play.

The factory of tomorrow
Back in November, Motorola announced a multi-year partnership with 3D Systems to develop a continuous, high-speed 3-D printing production platform and fulfillment system to support Project Ara's needs. Among other things, 3D Systems will have to significantly improve 3-D printing speeds across the board, improve its multi-material 3-D printing capabilities to incorporate conductive elements, and be able to handle the level of manufacturing capacity that Ara could one day need.

Because today's 3-D printing technology isn't advanced enough for these tasks, it essentially means that 3D Systems will have to push the boundaries of 3-D printing further into the world of finished-goods manufacturing. In other words, 3D Systems is playing a critical role that may ultimately determine the fate of Project Ara.

One happy family
The remaining 100 or so employees from Motorola's advanced technologies and projects group will move into Google's Mountain View headquarters to be integrated with the Android team. With a deeper level of integration than ever before, Project Ara has an even better chance of realizing its full potential. Google's Android team has the vision, scale, and pool of talented employees to catapult this revolutionary concept to the next level.

At the end of the day, Project Ara not only holds the potential to change how the world thinks about buying smartphones, but also how the world views 3-D printing as a viable manufacturing solution. Going forward, it's important to be mindful of the fact that this project is likely years away from becoming a reality and benefiting either Google's or 3D Systems' bottom lines. In the meantime, Project Ara holds more promise than ever before, making it worth keeping an eye on.