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Why Nokia’s 3D-printing move embraces the future

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Nokia has just done something pretty unusual: it’s invited its users to effectively tailor an element of its smartphone hardware to their individual needs.

As a Friday present for its more enterprising fans, the Finnish firm announced the release of what it calls a ‘3D-printing Development Kit’, or 3DK, for the back shell of its Lumia 820 handset. Here’s how Nokia community and developer marketing manager John Kneeland described it:

“Our Lumia 820 has a removable shell that users can replace with Nokia-made shells in different colors, special ruggedized shells with extra shock and dust protection, and shells that add wireless charging capabilities found in the high-end Lumia 920 to the mid-range 820.

“Those are fantastic cases, and a great option for the vast majority of Nokia’s Lumia 820 customers. But in addition to that, we are going to release 3D templates, case specs, recommended materials and best practices — everything someone versed in 3D printing needs to print their own custom Lumia 820 case.”

This makes Nokia unique among major handset manufacturers, at least so far. Yes, there are many 3D-printing schematics out there for iPhone cases, for example, that use Apple’s official specifications. However, they are not part of the iPhone.

Embracing inevitability

What Nokia has done here is to invite a certain type of user to build a component of its product. In doing so, the company is hewing to its historical course of openness – you know, the one it was so keen on before the Microsoft partnership, when it tried to accelerate development of the Symbian platform by open-sourcing it. That was all about software, and Nokia messed up by not being timely in its code releases.

This is about hardware, and Nokia can rightly claim to be in the vanguard here. Bear in mind that Lumia smartphones run the closed Windows Phone platform — by partnering with Microsoft rather than Google, Nokia sacrificed openness on the software side. By releasing the 3DK (a neat term, by the way), the company is reintroducing that customizability in its hardware and potentially stimulating a whole new ecosystem that may actually feed back to its own internal development efforts.

Nokia is effectively outsourcing rapid prototyping to its customers. As Kneeland puts it: “You want a waterproof, glow-in-the-dark phone with a bottle-opener and a solar charger? Someone can build it for you — or you can print it yourself.”

But there’s another aspect to this that Kneeland doesn’t mention. If you view the mass adoption of 3D printing as an inevitability – whether it be through people all owning their own 3D printers or, more likely, paying by usage at a local 3D-printing store – then it follows that many more people will start ripping out and replacing static components of various devices, such as smartphones.

If that happens, then many less skilled practitioners of the art will start messing up said devices with parts that just don’t fit as well as they should. Nokia’s 3DK release should reduce that risk for customizers of Lumia 820 phone shells, making it more likely that they will remain satisfied with the overall product experience. It’s like releasing a solid SDK, only for hardware, and it’s a smart move on many levels.

19 Responses to “Why Nokia’s 3D-printing move embraces the future”

  1. Bock Scudder

    “..then it follows that many more people will start ripping out and replacing static components of various devices, such as smartphones.

    If that happens, then many less skilled practitioners of the art will start messing up said devices with parts that just don’t fit as well as they should.”

    Trial and error are how wild ideas become viable realities. I will love living in a time when I can print a custom kevlar infused rubber housing for my laptop or luminescent ceramic amalgam keys for my gauntlet communicator. The future isn’t that far away.

  2. Yes, but for the reasonable future, how much does a 3D printer or access to one cost, and overall, how durable are the cases compared to established manufacturing techniques.

  3. rg….

    sanding many smert phone cases lately?.. so you agree..its a pR stunt…fun.

    as to cost,,, IF its a 11.50 cent part, then someone is taking a loss, just for the PR…

    buying a 3d printer is a small design business, or expensive hobbiests play… its not a consumer need….

    having a part printed and shipped ads up in cost…

    how do i know? well we did this in 2006. and it wasnt my first use of stereo lithography either…;)

    its all fine and fun… but Gartner hype stunts usually only end up making the dissatisfaction curve longer and deeper..

    • @c3
      I haven’t sanded many smart phone cases lately :). I agree with you that it’s also for PR, but I’d like to emphasize more the fun part you mentioned, I don’t want to be so cynical to say that it’s solely for PR. Even if it has PR dept.’s stamp of approval, it didn’t start from there. See post404. com/2013/01/nokia-dips-a-toe-into-the-makerspace/

      Remember that Nokia has been accused of being too engineer orientated instead of being a consumer orientated company. This is a pleasant example of engineer orientated approach. Texrat, who also commented above, is a good example of an engineer type person who has been tinkering with 3D printing for a while.

      Compare this also to Nokia’s pervious attempts with open source software, mainly OSs. OK from PR point of view, doesn’t affect average consumer in any practical way, great for geeks and engineers who like to tinker with stuff. Btw. those geeks are the ones who print stuff already and are willing to sand their smart phone cases if they are too jagged :)

      Just as you say, 3D printer is not a consumer need, but for hobbyists, for now. I took a look at your link at couldn’t help but to smile, I loved your models and the idea of printing them in 3D. That’s a great example of something that, at the moment, is something a geek would do, but also something that I could see being done in a mom+dad+2,5 kids-household in a decade.

      I didn’t quite catch whether you meant dissatisfaction curve for the product i.e. 820, or the technology i.e.3D printing when you mentioned that hype stunts are a problem. Though there probably are examples for both, I wouldn’t be too worried in this case. For 820 or Nokia this isn’t presented as an important part of the product. For 3D printing this is one of the few news bringing it a bit closer to the public, but still noticed mainly by those who already care about it. Nothing big but as you say “all fine and fun” in a good sense.

      This comment is getting too long and I still didn’t get to the price part, so far I have mainly agreed with you and maybe added a bit of backgroung for my view. I’ll do what my internet logic is suggesting and end here but write another comment.
      I’ll be back….

      • @c3
        Ok, so about the price. I did the math, as it turns out basic 3D prints are pretty reasonably priced in 2013.

        I didn’t check if that 11.50$ included shipping, probably not, but still ok price for a unique self designed back shell or case and I don’t think they have to be taking loss to be able to sell it for that.

        I checked prices for ABS and PLA. http://www.3ders. org/pricecompare/
        1. Material starts from 14$/kg but some are more expensive. Let’s say it’s 40$/kg which might be closer to the average.
        2. According to Wikipedia, PLA weights around 1300kg/m3 en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Polylactic_acid , which is 1.3g/cm3.
        3. Unicorn case was about 15cm3 making it weight 19.5g.

        = 19.5g with 40$/kg it makes material of the case cost 0.78$.

        If they would use same machines and material as hobbyists and sell it for 11.50$ + shipping they still would make > 10$ after material costs. Depending on how much they ship these and how labour intensive the work is, they probably are still making profit after all expenses.

        They make a good alternative for someone who doesn’t need 3D prints that often or for someone who wants to get something made out material other than basic one color plastic. On the other hand, if you can save more than 10$/order by printing stuff yourself and can have your piece ready in hours instead of waiting for days for it to be shipped, it soon makes sense to buy a cheap printer of your own, or share one with people you know.

        I might have miscalculated something. If that’s the case let me know.

      • Thanks for the acknowledgement @rg!

        I’m not letting the naysayers bother me. Many people will simply choose not to bother understanding the motivation and potential here and that’s fine. The release of model files was directed at those driving this sea change, not at consumers (yet) and definitely not at doubters.

        3D print-on-demand providers have jumped all over this, as have experienced hobbyists. They will not only play around with what Nokia has provided and develop some cool customizations, but also help Nokia see where products can be better designed to accomodate the growing reality of democratized manufacturing. Already that feedback is being factored into a soon-to-come second release of altered models.

    • We’re fortunate that there is a growing community of can-do innovators who want to improve upon the status quo. Every innovation has faced growing pains; 3D printing is of course no different. But just like other disruptive advents in the past, this technology will find many practical uses. Nokia has decided to act here rather than react. I believe it’s the right move.

  4. Jagged ABS? I see a lot of cut bleeding hands in the adopters market.. how about cost… wont the case as print end up costing almost as much as the phone ittself when done? i guess one can “print” with metal secondary processes– gold? silver?

    • @c3
      3D prints don’t have perfect resolution yet, that’s for sure, but they aren’t so jagged that it would be a problem. ABS and PLA can also both be sanded to get it even smoother. Price can vary but it’s not the point, point here is that you can design you own case.

      What comes to the price, you will get it cheaper if you already have a printer, but I went to 3dprintingpricecheck. com and uploaded Pekka’s unicorn case design to see what it would cost. With the unicorn adding to its size it’s about 15 cm^3. Price when ordered online is from USD 11.36, which is already multicolored plastic to USD 2986.75 for one in 10k gold. So just like with ready made cases, you can spend as much as you want, but plastic is cheaper and more practical than gold.

    • Fortunately we’re not limited to low resolution results and have not been for some time.

      Also, cost is not a real issue for anyone choosing to get involved with this. It is experimentation, innovation.

      It’s a very good thing that cynicism has not been successful at stopping other historic developments that we now take for granted. ;)