How Google created a modular mobile phone

Google will bring a modular phone to market in 2015, made up of swappable and replaceable parts. The phone is designed to be a long-term sustainable product tailored to customers’ changing needs.

The Google Ara comprises a ‘robust endoskeleton’ and ‘swappable modules’ including a screen, camera, and battery.

It has been designed for Google by San Francisco based industrial designer Gadi Amit and his team at New Deal Design.

New Deal Design was initially approached by Google-owned Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group in August 2013. Google later sold Motorola in January 2014 but kept ATAP and Project Ara, which became Google Ara.

The endoskeleton of the Google Ara means different sizes and different types of components can be added and permits ‘growth of device’ from, for example, phone to phablet, according to Google.

Amit says there are three sizes of Skeleton and that if you wanted to move up a size, the modules would be transferable. Only a larger skeleton and screen would need to be acquired.

Google says, ‘The framework of the endoskeleton and interchangeable modules promise to democratise hardware in the same way that the app opened up the world of software.

‘Modules can be developed by anyone; 3D-printed on demand, used, replaced and even re-sold ensuring your phone is completely made for each user.’

The endolskeleton is made from aluminium to provide strength, while ‘undercuts’ hold the modules in place. Electro-permanent magnets further strengthen the stability of the modules.

Amit says, ‘The undercuts are dovetail details and the electro-permanent magnets are zapped once to become magnetised so there’s no need for electric current.’

Module development is open-source and there is a toolkit provided to help developers understand the hierarchy of functions and how components can be integrated.

Amit says, ‘The modules are geared to being open-source and there will be a market where hundreds of vendors will offer variety and there will be millions of people who will be able to buy and exchange modules.’

Amit says that this market will allow customers to make ‘informed decisions’ on which modules have been more ethically produced and pay accordingly.

He recognises that the most sustainable components may cost more to produce and therefore to buy, but thinks some customers will want to do this.

‘Today they don’t have a choice but with Ara they’ll be able to think about cost versus sustainability and may have 200 types of batteries to choose from – and some will have a reduced environmental impact,’ says Amit. 

He expects the lifespan of the phone to be five to seven years based on the assumption that the endoskeleton will last that long.

Amit says one of the prominent questions during the project has been, ‘Why can’t we sustain utility beyond first generation?’

Amit hopes that modules will be used second and third hand and while he recognises that ‘people will always want the latest processing power’ he adds, ‘If the screen doesn’t break you could double or treble the lifespan of the phone.’

The production of the phone will see the exterior shells created through mass 3D printing on a manufacturing scale.

Basic low-cost versions of the phone will be available – ‘We believe an under $100 goal is attainable’, according to Amit, who says there will also be high end modules with medical or scientific application, ‘and one manifestation could be testing blood oxygen levels.’  

While the formative Project Ara was being developed Motorola was also working with another designer ‘Dave Hakkens, who came to the companies attention through his project Phonebloks.

Both Google and Amit say that New Deal Design was working with the ATAP team on the Ara brief before Amit became involved, and that Hakkens was not directly involved in the design of Ara.  

Hakkens’ Phonebloks project, which was featured in the Design museum’s Designs of the Year exhibition, created a huge amount of social activity and became the basis for an online community.

Hakkens says, ‘Phonebloks’ main goal is to have a modular phone in the world. We’re closely connected with Ara and fully support it. ’

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • Mark Cutler June 14, 2014 at 10:18 am

    ‘How Google bought the idea from this Phonebloks kickstarter’, surely ?

  • Kelly Clarkson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great idea. Look forward to it.

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