Late last year it was reported that Google would be working closely with 3D Systems in order to print out the modules for their upcoming Project Ara smartphone. For those who are unaware what Project Ara is, it’s essentially a smartphone which runs off of several modules. There’s a module for the screen, one for the battery, another for the camera, and so on. By making the phone modular, Google hopes to transform the smartphone industry, allowing users to customize and upgrade their phones as they see fit.
3D printing added a whole other dimension to the phone’s customization, perhaps allowing the plastic covers for the modules to also be completely personalize. For over a year now we have been getting hints of how 3D Systems plans to work with Google in order to mass produce millions, or even billions of these modules via a high speed racetrack-like 3D printing architecture. According to 3D Systems, this new architecture promises speeds which are 50 times that of current additive manufacturing technologies on the market today.
While excitement has continued to build around this project from both the smartphone and 3D printing communities, things seem to be a bit off track. Though many media outlets continue to report that 3D systems will be building the modules for Project Ara when they launch sometime next year, a recent video has surfaced, refuting these claims.
Google’s director of Project Ara, Paul Eremenko, recently sat down with the President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, to discuss the project’s future ambitions. As you can see from the video below (starting at around the 56:20 mark), Eremenko put a dagger through the hearts of 3D printing enthusiasts, at least for the time being.
“We did in fact look at making the shells using 3D printed materials that offer an extra degree of customization,” explained Eremenko. “As it turned out, there is a little ways to go in the 3D printing space. So for now we are using polycarbonate with dye sublimation as the aesthetic elements of the device.”
Despite his lack of enthusiasm for the technology in the short run, Eremenko seems quite positive about 3D printing’s future prospects, comparing its exponential advances to Moore’s Law, which is the observation that over a long period of time, the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double approximately every two years.
“I do think that 3D printing offers some really exciting prospects and I think the costs in the long run will diminish as it gets to maturity in scale,” stated Eremenko. “That strikes me as an industrial-based domain that will follow something very close to Moore’s law in terms of advances. So I am not too concerned about the long term costs of 3D printing, and the capabilities are pretty staggering.”
It’s not all bad news, as it seems likely that Google will eventually look towards 3D printing in the future, especially if the concept behind Project Ara is a hit. Eremenko elaborated on where 3D printing may eventually take us in terms of smartphone customization:
“One of the things we have looked at doing was embedding the antenna in the shell, and creating the antenna custom from shell to shell using a conductive ink layer. It is a very exciting technology and one day I think it will be pretty cool if you could have a machine […] that says, ‘Here’s the phone I want, here’s the features I want,’ and it doesn’t have to be modular, it just makes the phone, and I do think that day will come.”
We are know that 3D Systems is working diligently on their racetrack-like architecture, which will speed up the mass manufacturing of products via additive technologies. This work began prior to Google’s request to work with them, and would certainly continue if Google decided to pull out from any agreements. 3D Systems believes the new system will begin generating revenue for them before the end of 2015. It will be interesting to see what becomes of 3D Systems’ high speed printing technology, as well as Google’s Project Ara, in the year to come.
Let’s hear your thoughts on Google’s decision not to use 3D printing for Project Ara, at least for the time being. Discuss in the Project Ara/3D Systems forum thread on 3DPB.com.