Nokia Embraces 3-D Printing Future, Perhaps Too Soon

Nokia hopes consumers will push for phone cases made with 3-D printers. But 3-D printing has been a "dismal failure" as a business for a Half Moon Bay, Calif., shop owner.
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After years of being behind the technology curve, Nokia is determined to get out ahead of it. The beleaguered mobile phone company on Friday released the mechanical drawings necessary to create custom plastic cases for its Lumia 820 mobile phone using a 3-D printer.

Nokia's 3-D printing Development Kit, or 3DK, includes models in STL and STEP formats, for the full backshell and button assembly, as well as individual models for the shell and for each button. Downloading the files requires a Nokia ID and a Nokia developer registration.

"In doing this, Nokia has become the first major phone company to begin embracing the 3-D printing community and its incredible potential, and continue to be the leading phone company in this exciting field," said John Kneeland, community and developer marketing manager at Nokia, on Nokia's website.

[ The government might eventually craft its own spaceship parts. Read NASA's IT Future: Robot Telework, 3-D Printing. ]

For several years, 3-D printing has been the next big thing. Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief at Wired and author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, predicted 3-D printing will be "bigger than the Web." Presently, however, he's focused on his drone startup rather than 3-D printing.

That might be because 3-D printing, although it excites futurists and those who like to make things for themselves, remains a novelty that isn't all that useful outside of manufacturers who need rapid prototyping.

On its 3-D printing wiki page, Nokia suggests that those without access to a 3-D printer -- most people -- might want to take their customized design files to a 3-D printing service provider like Oddyssea in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

Those interested in doing so might want to hurry: Mike Harding, co-founder of the interactive arts and sciences shop, posted a comment on Nokia's webpage describing his shop's experiment with 3-D printing as "a dismal failure."

In a phone interview, Harding said, "Frankly, we're thinking about getting out of the business because nobody was using [the 3-D printer]." Nokia's 3-D printing enthusiasts evidently didn't see the blog post he'd written nine days previously about the lack of interest from customers in 3-D printing. In the six months his shop has been offering the service, Harding is the only one to have printed anything and fewer than a dozen of the objects he created have been purchased.

Harding is offering his 3-D printing machine for sale, but he says he's hopeful that Nokia's announcement will generate interest and create customers. "I really want it to succeed but thus far the data are not encouraging," said Harding. "We've had thousands of people through the shop and dozens of good conversations with people about it but it hadn't resulted in me printing anything other than Nautilus gears, spiral cups and the like."

The issue for consumers probably isn't cost. Oddyssea charges $1 per gram, with a five-gram minimum. A case for one's Nokia Lumia would probably run about $5 in materials. That, of course, excludes the time required to become proficient with 3-D graphics software and the cost of that software, for those not using an open-source option such as Blender.

The issue might be location. In San Francisco, where there are presumably more technophiles per square foot than down the road in Half Moon Bay, there's real interest in 3-D printing. Kyle Moore, an employee at community workshop TechShop, said in a phone interview that 3-D printing was "immensely popular" among TechShop members and that the shop's MakerBot was presently out of commission due to over-usage. Told of Nokia's release of 3-D printing files, Moore said that although someone had printed a sample iPhone case recently, if he had the choice between buying an iPhone case and printing his own, he'd probably just visit the Apple Store.

3-D printers, said Moore in reference to the more affordable models, are "cool machines but still very much in the toy stage." Nonetheless, he believes people are interested in improving their 3-D modeling and design skills because "it's one of those things everyone knows will be big in the next five or 10 years."

Ken Hyers, senior analyst with Technology Business Research, in an email characterized Nokia's venture into the 3-D printing arena as "a quirky offering that will be appealing to the small subset of Nokia's Lumia smartphone customers who actually own a 3-D printer, which is not exactly a common consumer device."

Even so, he sees the move as a positive one because "Nokia needs to regain the perception among consumers that it's an innovative, open and customer-centric company."

Hyers says that 3-D printing will only appeal to a small number of "basement tinkerers" who might come up with designs Nokia can actually incorporate into future products. "But overall, this is about marketing and about building up credibility as an open, friendly smartphone vendor," he said. "I think that attitude will resonate with customers, but Nokia will have to do a lot more of these kinds of activities to build awareness among more consumers."

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