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Nokia Gives 3D Printers Something Fun to Do

By Peter Suciu
Jan 19, 2013 7:00 AM PT

Nokia on Friday released a 3D printing kit that will allow users to create their own custom cases for the Lumia 820. The handset, which was unveiled last September, features a removable shell case that lets users change the color of their phone or even enable options such as wireless charging.

Nokia Gives 3D Printers Something Fun to Do

Lumia 820

Now Nokia has taken things a step farther. It is allowing users to customize their phone via a special 3D printing kit. The 3DK is the first such accessory from a major handset manufacturer. Although the market penetration for 3D printers is still in its infancy, this is a way for Nokia, a once-dominant player in the handset arena, to regain the spotlight for doing something different.

"This is very much a marketing initiative," said Ian Fogg, senior principal analyst and head of the IHS mobile sector at IHS iSuppli. This is about getting column inches and getting Nokia talked about in the media."

Nokia did not respond to our request for further details.

Cutting-Edge Props

Even prior to the widespread adoption of mobile smartphones, the handset has been very much a way of showing off some individuality. Primarily this has been through the production of cases, which has grown from a cottage industry to a major market.

Is Nokia killing the cash cow by allowing users to create cases with a printer?

"The reason this is very much a marketing initiative is that Nokia knows accessories have good margins," Fogg told TechNewsWorld.

"Nokia doesn't want to sacrifice that market, and they know 3D printing is a niche market," he explained. "Few people own 3D printers at home, so it won't cannibalize the accessories businesses at all."

It could also help reaffirm that Nokia is still very much on the cutting edge -- even beating Apple with something that could have users thinking and reacting differently.

"Nokia wants and needs to reposition themselves as tech leaders, and this appeals to thought leaders and first adopters," said Glen Hiemstra of Futurist.com. "It will create buzz in the maker community."

Custom Case

The fact that Nokia -- not Apple -- is embracing this technology goes back to Nokia's roots in providing some variety to mobile phone owners.

"Nokia's old advantage was they were the one company that seemed to get that folks didn't want to have identical phones and theirs were designed to have their appearance changed by users," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. "This would be particularly important if you were competing against a one-size/look-fits-all strategy like Apple has."

There have been many ways to create individualized phone cases, but much of this has resulted in increasing the footprint of the handset in the processes. Nokia could change that.

"It could differentiate Nokia from most handsets on the market," said Fogg. "Instead of customizing the handset, you are actually customizing the casing -- and this isn't adding any bulk or heft to the phone."

Future of 3D

The other notable part of this is that 3D has been a dud as a visual technology, in that consumers aren't liking what they see on a TV screen. However, having a 3D printer to play with could be much more inviting. To date, 3D printers have been expensive, though.

MarkerBot unveiled a 3D printer in September that cost nearly US$2,200, but as with many technologies the price is likely to fall. For people to get excited about adopting the technology, there need to be products worth printing -- and the 3DK could nicely fill that void.

"Nokia sees the future coming, and this is a recognition that 3D printing is on the way to being commercially viable for custom products," added Hiemstra.

This could also be an experiment in the tradition of preferring fast failure over being too cautious, Hiemstra told TechNewsWorld, "a charge [Nokia has] been prone to -- but small risk, pretty big reward."

Of course, for this technology to take root will require that drop in price, but that should happen over time, and 3D printing could be a big game-changing moment -- one that starts now.

"This is likely the future of customization, and it will only be a matter of time before someone figures out how to get the price down so you can have a 3D printer in your home that can customize a lot of stuff ," noted Enderle. "This clearly brings 3D printing one more big step into the mainstream."

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