3D printing is one of the most-hyped and least-understood industries we investors have to consider. Sure, it's going to be big... but how big?
TJ McCue decided to hop into an RV and find out. He's in the middle of an eight-month road trip around the U.S., stopping more than 100 times along the way to see how American businesses -- and individuals -- are putting 3D technology to use.
Among the findings on his 3DRV tour: We'll all soon be able to print out a full-size T-Rex dinosaur, and charge our cell phones with our shoes.
Our roving reporter Rex Moore caught up with TJ in Washington, D.C., to hear more about this crazy journey.
Rex Moore: TJ McCue is living the dream... if the dream is to travel the country and live out of an RV for eight months. But, I'd do the same thing if I had the chance.
TJ McCue: The big idea is go around and meet the people who are doing cool stuff with 3D technology, from 3D design software to 3D scanning to 3D printing.
Moore: TJ is a seasoned tech journalist and entrepreneur, and a 3D enthusiast. His journey started in San Rafael, California, in mid-May at Autodesk headquarters -- the main sponsor of his tour. Along the way, he's driven a virtual Ford Mustang and seen 3D-mapping drones flying in Toledo. He's also done his own laser scans of buildings and monuments.
McCue: And it's sort of a preservation thing. We give them the file, and they can put it up like Google street view on their website. So your consumer, your visitor, can go in and see that on their own.
Moore: Today, I'm hanging out with TJ at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington. A group called the "laser cowboys" from the Smithsonian's 3D Digitization program is scanning the bones of a Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur.
Adam Metallo, 3D Digitization Officer, Smithsonian: One of the outcomes we want to see from this project is to be able to make each individual bone downloadable at home. So this means classrooms and enthusiasts are going to have access to the exact same data sets that scientists at the Smithsonian have access to. What we're looking at here is a T-Rex humerus. This is an arm bone, and it's actually about the same size as an adult arm bone. So this is a really cool way to relate to an enormous creature from millions of years ago. This is something that we can now hold in our hands. Anyone can download these files and print them themselves.
Moore: Actual T-Rex bones -- scanned and 3-D printed. Just another stop on TJ's unforgettable tour.
McCue: It's really awesome and amazing to see what people are doing. If you give people tools -- there's so many low-cost and free tools now -- they iterate on an idea or design and come up with fantastic things. One of the teams that I met, in Pittsburgh, SolePower Tech, came up with the idea to create an insole for your shoe that charges your cellphone battery while you walk. Here in the U.S. not big deal, but if you get outside the U.S., 5 million don't have power in their homes. So they've got to walk somewhere to charge. These guys just solved that equation. An insole can't be that expensive for most people, and it can charge your phone battery for you.
Moore: We've seen some amazing stuff so far, but one of the biggest questions for investors is how big will 3D printing be in the consumer market? I've personally seen the 3D section at CES -- the world's largest consumer electronics show -- explode over the last couple of years, and it will double again in size for this January's show.
But is this just wishful thinking from the industry, or a real indicator of the future of the consumer market?
McCue: When I started, I was really skeptical that a 3D printer in the home was a good idea, but now that I've met lots of people and talked to them and seen the lightbulb go off, absolutely. I think it's for the kids and grandkids, you want them to think in 3D. You want them to know they can use these tools and get proficient. It's $200-$300 to get a 3D printer, and it gives you the opportunity to mess around with your kids and grandkids and create something, and it starts a younger mind thinking about what you can do in 3D. That's the big shift. I don't think it's so you can print toys and trinkets in your home, or everything that breaks. I think there's an opportunity within 3D-thinking to be had by having a small, inexpensive printer in your house.
Moore: And so... at about the halfway point of his journey, TJ is on the road again, heading to Civil War battlefields, national parks and monuments, even the Grand Ole Opry. He winds it all up in mid-December, back in California. If you're an investor, you'll want to be sure to keep up with his adventure at 3DRV.com.
Reporting from Washington, D.C., I'm Rex Moore with The Motley Fool.