Ping Fu and the 3-D Revolution

Ping Fu and the 3-D Revolution

A rags-to-riches tale of a woman of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and her path to 3-D printing success.

Can’t find the right shoes? If you’re tired of wandering from store to store looking for the perfect pair, soon you can just take a photo of your feet and send it directly to the shoe manufacturer — and they’ll print out your shoes for you, customized to your exact specifications. Sounds crazy? Not with the rise of 3-D printing. At least that’s what technology trailblazer Ping Fu believes. And her ideas are transforming the way we produce and consume goods.

In 1996, Chuck Hull, creator of the three-dimensional printer, showed Fu his new invention. It spit out liquid plastic goo, creating full-fledged objects. And the materials could be nearly anything: glued sand or even chocolate. She was mesmerized.

And as the printer head danced back and forth, it reminded her of an earlier life, at the factories in her native China. She knew the potential 3-D printing held, so she started a company, Geomagic, to develop software to create blueprints for 3-D printers. It would for printing what Adobe did for publishing.

Last month, Fu sold the company for $55 million. As an artist and a scientist whose chosen expression just happens to be business, her journey through to the West, and into business is full of this and thats — China and America, mother and CEO, digital and concrete. She melds contradictory ideas, carving out a future that brings out not just the best of each realm, but both to create innovative products.

Bamboo Beginnings

“When I was a young girl in China, my Shanghai papa told me bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind, but never breaking,” Fu said in a trailer for her book. “Your ability to thrive depends on your attitude, taking everything in stride with grace. It’s as though he knew that challenges that awaited me.”

In contrast to the entrepreneurial freedom of the U.S., Fu’s childhood was marked by oppression in China. Born in 1958, where her father was a professor at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, she was just eight years-old when the Cultural Revolution turned her life upside down. She told the Daily Beast in an interview that her family members, slowly one by one, disappeared to the mountains, which was code for the Communist Party’s forced labor camps. Then, one day, the Red Guards came looking for her. Separated from her parents, they put her on a train and sent her off to be cast into forced orphanages.

She labored six hours a day, six days a week, in factories — and often in farms — for over a decade. It wasn’t until 1976, when the crackdown eased, that she was released and returned to school.

Her memoir, “Bend, Not Break,” became the subject of controversy when critics, which acknowledge the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, began to question her accounts of the era. She admitted that one of the atrocities — about a teacher being pulled apart by four horses — may have been an emotional memory, the result of hearing stories of it as a child. And her publisher clarified that the book is a memoir, and not a journalistic account.

Regardless, she went on to study Chinese literature in college, but was arrested shortly after Deng Xiaoping, the country’s paramount leader, read articles criticizing China’s one-child policy in a popular magazine she edited, she told the Guardian. Upset officials briefly imprisoning her before asking her to simply leave the country. And she did.

New Horizons

At 25, she left for the U.S., with little money, poor English and no resources. Fluency in a new language was difficult, but when she began studying computer programming, she realized she could express herself through code. She quickly realized literature and software had commonalities — they were both writing, just in different languages. So, in 1984, looking beyond the closed-door of English fluency, she got her degree in computer science at the University of California in San Diego.

That decision was a pivotal one, and in her commencement speech to University of Illinois students, she said, “I knew, based on everything I’d been through already, that there were doors yet to be opened.”

Opening New Doors to Find Tech Innovations

Following graduation, Fu took a job with Illinois-based Bell Labs, and later received a master’s from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was the early ’90s and she understood she had a mental agility her diverse background — literature in China and science in the U.S. — gave her.

“Some people’s minds work more logical and problem solving, other people’s minds work more comprehensively in composition,” she told Quartz. “That’s your major preference, but everybody can benefit from education that trains you not just in one field, even if that’s not your focus.”

Looking to flex those muscles, she joined the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and in the early ’90s gained attention for morphing software to animate the liquid metal T-1000 robot in the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day. She also hired Marc Andreessen, future creator of Netscape and famed venture capitalist, to develop an early browser named Mosaic for the nascent World Wide Web.

She can’t help but point out the juxtaposition of the rural Illinois landscape and those early high-tech pursuits, “Here in the middle of the endless cornfields, some of the computer industry’s greatest and most creative minds had converged,” she said in the commencement speech. “We wrote history in scraps of software and tossed much of it into the public domain. We took the work of theoretical scientists and gave it dimension, color and transparency.”

The Next Door to Open

At NCSA, she also developed 3-D computer models, so when Hull came along, her work experience in the factories in China, along with her knowledge of programming, came together. “This is Internet of things, this is not about display and sharing data, this is about using data to make stuff; the product is in the software code,” she said at the Annual American Library Association Meeting. “My head spun with possibilities.”

Today, Geomagic creates a wide array of digitally processed objects, from the very basic to the incredibly complex. Engineers, designers, and artists — from companies like Boeing and Mattel — use her software to do everything ranging from streamlining the manufacture of toy doll houses to the customization of cranial prosthetics, hearing aids and dental devices, to guaranteeing the safety of the Space Shuttle Discovery and recreating engine manifolds for a NASCAR racing team. And it does in mere minutes what designers used to take weeks to do.

But that’s just the beginning. She sees a time when all sorts of goods — from jewelry and shoes to vacuum handles and dental implants — are designed around the world and “printed” on site. We won’t ship truckloads of products across oceans, anymore — they’ll all be made locally, reducing fuel costs and pollution. The idea could reinvent the idea of manufacturing in the 21st century, keeping jobs local and giving the U.S. a new competitive edge. In an era where manufacturing overseas is cheap and quick and many industries lean on these factories to keep costs low, 3-D printing could change the dynamic, putting a premium on the designs we can create with the printers. Innovation and creativity will be the true competitive edge — something Fu’s life and work proves again and again.

Remixing Consumerism

What if you could make any object you desired? Say you want a necklace. You’re obsessed with finding a romantic, bow-shaped pendant in iridescent pink sparkling on a delicate chain. You scour eBay, Google descriptions of your dream necklace and fervently scroll through Amazon.com. Despite your Gollum-style fervor, you can’t find what you’re after.

Normally, at this point, the game would be over. Yes, you could try to fashion it yourself, but your DIY know-how isn’t advanced enough to forge a mold. And Etsy doesn’t have anything like your dream trinket. You’re stuck. And you can only hope one day your necklace vision will align with contemporary jewelry trends.

Unless you use a 3-D printer.

Turning Imagination Into Reality

The idea of 3-D printing sounds like something from an outlandish Philip K. Dick novel. Instead of putting ink to paper, these printers create full-fledged objects.

But how?

The process is actually similar to traditional printing. In both cases, you have a printer head full of a material that moves back and forth. But while standard printers use ink to make two-dimensional imprints of words or images, 3-D heads use liquid plastic or other malleable materials to go back and forth over the same spot until they build up vertically. Just like standard printers, they follow a blueprint to finish sculpting designs. You can print a wide array of objects, from basic plastic knickknacks to incredibly complex prosthetic hands.

Using interchangeable heads, printers can use more than one material, and innovators are pushing the limits every day. Simple printed objects use plastic, or one or two tractable materials, like polylactic acid, an affordable mixture of cornstarch and sugar cane. But ingredients are growing more advanced as the technology becomes mainstream. For example, pastry makers are using liquefied chocolate and other edibles to craft food sculptures.

In Tokyo, for $60, you can order a replica of your head — made of chocolate — to give to your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day. It’s a bit creepy, but nonetheless, it’s impressive. Along a similar vein, Toronto-based design company Hot Pop lets you and your sweetheart enter a “kissing booth” and emerge with a small plastic copy of your embrace.

Scientists are pushing the boundaries of 3-D printing, often with incredible results. The European Space Union, for example, launched an investigation into whether it can help build a moon base. Meanwhile, in the U.K., researchers are printing human skin cells. It’s also revolutionizing the field of prosthetics, allowing craftsman to make customized limbs that work better than mass-produced versions.

At this point, it’s still expensive to produce personalized plastic objects — Hot Pop figurines sell for around $90 — but prices are coming down. Optimistic supporters draw parallels between 3-D printers and computers, noting that PCs also started out as pricey hobbyist toys before becoming household staples.

Over the past five years, the cost of those printers has plunged dramatically, and companies like MakerBot are coming up with cheaper, more home-office friendly versions. Each release makes gets them closer to you every day. More affordable printers, which cost around $2,200, are still expensive, but not hopelessly out of reach for an aspiring hobbyist.

The Problem With Printing

The price still is high, making them a niche attraction — the domain of quirky craft retailers. But printers will make a mark on consumerism. It’s upending the manufacturing model by decentralizing the design and means of production, putting it in the hands of consumers. Most printers are still limited in what they can do, but people making increasingly complex objects — like model airplanes.

Even if you can’t buy a printer, small businesses are bridging the gap between commercial and personal manufacturing, offering a twist on demand by design. Thingiverse, created by the people behind MakerBot, gives you a glimpse into that customizable universe. The site lets aspiring craftsman share blueprints to assemble their own goods. Over 25,000 open-source designs are traded, “remixed” and copied each day, and the community is growing.

If you’re not into designing, MakerBot introduced a 3-D scanner, an accessory that just prints. By taking an everyday object you have lying around, just scan it to make a custom printed version of it.

It’s easy to use, but traditional manufacturers aren’t excited. Retailers and businesses are aware you can recreate or reinterpret their goods. And while that isn’t a problem now — since 3-D printing isn’t widely used — it may become one. Say you get a beautiful necklace and you want to make a copy for a friend. That worries designers, especially if you use a material that’s similar to make accurate knockoffs and counterfeits.

As printing becomes more popular, manufacturers are trying to legally protect their products and stop you from copying or tweaking their designs. While most objects aren’t patented, manufacturers are starting to cordon off replication and remixing for fear of diminished branding and profits.

So Where Does Printing Stand?

MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis spoke at SXSW and discussed the positive impact of 3-D printers, citing how hobbyists come up with clever uses for everyday life: replacing a rare part of an espresso maker, developing custom orthopedics to make a child taller, bringing printers to bars to make shot glasses. The possibilities are as diverse and far-ranging as the imagination.

When asked if he thought someday, anything could be made, he answered with a resounding “yes,” according to Ars Technica. We’re a long way from printing whatever we want — printers work best with plastic and simple designs — but the technology is developing at a rapid clip.

It’ll remix consumerism, by giving you a more active role in creating the products you need, like a plastic piece to fix your broken vacuum, or those you desire, like a necklace. But if companies feel their interests are threatened, 3-D printing may wind up in invention purgatory, stymied by efforts to protect the way of doing things.

A New Balancing Act

Looking to put Geomagic at the forefront of an emerging industry, Fu hired an executive team, but when they nearly ran it to bankruptcy, she returned as CEO. She revived the business, and by 2003, sales had tripled. It became the leader in the digital sampling market.

While she was righting the corporate ship, she also raised a young daughter, giving her a distraction from her professional life. It made her a better businesswoman and a better person. “Once you become a mother, you wake up in the morning not just thinking about yourself, you start to think about somebody else,” she told Quartz, comparing it to being a CEO. “I don’t wake up thinking about whether I get a promotion or can I get ahead, I wake up thinking about whether I can make payroll for other people in the company.”

The balancing act worked, and the dynamic tension between work and family only seemed to fuel her success. She went on to win several awards, such as Fast Company’s “Fast 50” in 2004 and Inc. Magazine’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” in 2005. The America China Business Women’s Alliance and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services also recognized her business savvy and cultural diversity. And even President Obama named her to the National Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Where Opportunity Lies

Inner contradictions often pull us apart inside. But Fu has made it a strength to draw on the fractured experiences she’s had — and made it the source of her vision and creativity. If she hadn’t worked in a factory — and known intimately what it was like to put objects together — she wouldn’t have seen beyond the gee-whiz factor of the 3-D printer to envision its possibilities in manufacturing.

“I love in between spaces — art meets science, hand craftsmanship meets IT technology,” she told Fast Company. “I love the difference between China and America. In between is where I think opportunity lies.”

If the key to the future lies in the space between things, then Fu, now 54, is a master of navigating many worlds and perfectly equipped to lead us there. “We are in between the digital world and the physical world,” she continued, describing the fluid translation from one into the other. “Innovation doesn’t happen in silos. Innovation happens when several technologies or several social movements come together.”


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