Motorola has signed a multi-year deal with the first maker of 3D printers and services to build mobile phone parts that can be functionally and aesthetically customised for owners.

The business partnership with 3D Systems will lead to "a continuous high-speed 3D printing production platform in support of Motorola's Project Ara, an open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones.

Motorola's Project Ara is an open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones.

"With Project Ara, we asked the question, 'How do we bring the benefits of customization and an open hardware ecosystem to 6 billion people?' That is our driving application. It requires technical advances in areas such as material strength and printing with conductive inks for antennas," Regina Dugan, head of Motorola's Advanced Technology & Projects group, said in a statement.

"And those advances must support production-level speeds and volumes, which is a natural partnership with 3D Systems," she added.

If the development phase of the deal is a success, 3D Systems is expected to be Motorola's exclusive manufacturer for Project Ara smartphone enclosures and modules, the companies said.

Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, said his companies machines – combined with Motorola's phone designs – will help create "the factory of the future."

3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) works by laying down consecutive layers of materials – either plastics, ceramics or metals – from the bottom up to create an object. The printable objects, created using a computer-aided design program, are sliced into many layers by another computer program, which tells the printer head where to deposit materials on the printer table.

"3D printing promotes a level of sustainability, functionality, and mass personalization that turns these kinds of global ambitions into attainable local realities," Reichental said.

As part of this agreement, 3D Systems plans to substantially expand its multi-material printing capabilities, including the use of conductive and functional materials. The company also plans to combine additive and subtractive manufacturing methods, and deliver an integrated high-speed production platform.

Motorola and 3D Systems previously partnered on the MAKEwithMOTO tour, a series of make-a-thons at the nation's top engineering and design schools that created open, hackable smartphone hardware and 3D printing to begin seeding an open hardware ecosystem.