Walk a Mile in Her (3D-Printed) Shoes
BY Burt Helm
Lessons on resilience and beauty from Ping Fu, of the 3D printing pioneer Geomagic.
Today, Geomagic's imaging technology has helped make everything from custom parts for NASA space shuttles, to one-of-a-kind Invisalign braces, to the brightly-colored, 3D-printed shoes and shawl that Ping Fu, the company's founder, wore onstage at the Inc. 500/5000 conference. "I decided to print them both in pink, to match," she mused.
But Ping Fu's life in manufacturing started out very differently. In a talk on Friday titled "Resilience," Fu explained her journey from growing up in Cultural Revolution-era China to eventually founding Geomagic, and becoming Inc.'s 2005 Entrepreneur of the Year. "Your ability to thrive depends on your attitude," she told the packed audience. "You must take everything in stride, with grace."
At age 8, Mao's Cultural Revolution took her away from her adoptive family and put her in a tiny dormitory room with her younger sister in Nanjing, where people worked on assembly lines making cheap, mass products for the West. Fu eventually attended university in China, only to be expelled in 1984 after writing a rebellious college thesis about China's One Child Law, she said. Upon arriving in the U.S., she studied computer science at the University of New Mexico, and eventually worked with Chuck Hull, one of the original developers of 3D printing technology. Hull's company, 3D Systems, bought Geomagic earlier this year.
The possibilities of digital design and advanced manufacturing captured her imagination, Fu said, leading her to her life's goal: "Can we combine craftsmanship with Internet technology so we can make one-of-a-kind things again?"
As she discussed her work, Ping Fu moved on to focus on not just resilience, but beauty--entrepreneurs, she said, should recognize it within themselves, appreciate it in others, and then create businesses that reflect that collective respect.
"Products must be beautiful because life has an emotional aspect," said Fu before a packed audience of Inc. 500/5000 entrepreneurs. "We all want to feel relevant, precious, and proud." During tough times, consumers skip over brands that don't realize that, she said.
GeoMagic's system uses digital photography to create a computer model, which can then be turned into a real world object--through 3D printing, milling, or casting. That advanced manufacturing process could enable us to make functional products into one-of-a-kind expressions of creativity. She showed an image of a prosthetic leg she'd made for an amputee that perfectly mirrored his existing left leg, so that he could play soccer, and look good doing it. Another prosthetic, for an amputee Harley aficionado, was designed to evoke a Harley's machinery. She discussed a digitally designed guitar that had an unusual internal shape, resulting in an unusual sound. Her office contains a foosball table where the players' faces resemble those of her employees.
Such custom designs weren't necessarily expensive--her bright shoes cost only $10, she said--and make design available to a much larger group of people. In Hong Kong, her company experimented with bringing a 3D printer inside a toy store, to make on-demand toys. A factory in a toy store--something an 8 year-old Fu, toiling in Nanjing, never would have dreamed up.