An exceptional Chinese female career in 3D printing
TextileFuture came across the latest Ernest & Young Consultancy publication Exceptional Entrepreneurship + Innovation = Growth (July–December 2015) and the particular feature of an exceptional Chinese career in 3D printing written by Christa Cala. TextileFuture offers you a reprint of the feature with photographs by Brian Regan because it gives you an insight in this 3D printing (additive manufacturing) sector
Born under Chairman Mao’s regime, Ping Fu used her intelligence and perseverance to build a new life in the US as a successful entrepreneur at the vanguard of the 3D printing sector
When Ping Fu first saw Chuck Hull, the inventor of 3D printing and founder of 3D Systems, demonstrating his invention, inspiration struck hard. “That was the moment I found my calling,” says
Fu, who was then working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in the US. “I never thought I was going to be an entrepreneur, but when I saw Chuck demonstrating a 3D printer I was amazed, and also knew there was a lot of opportunity to improve the software to generate prints from a 3D model. I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s what I’m going to do.’
”In 1997, Fu co-founded Geomagic to bring to life her innovative 3D imaging and 3D printing software, which is now used to design state-of-the art prosthetics, heart valves, hearing aids, turbine machinery and more. And in 2013, she sold Geomagic to 3D Systems, headquartered in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Today she serves as Chief Entrepreneur Officer, cultivating new innovations for the future of 3D printing. “One of the reasons I sold Geomagic to 3D Systems was because I feel like it was Chuck Hull who inspired me in the first place to start my business,” Fu says.
At first glance, this could be the archetypal entrepreneurial story: inspiration, innovation, hard work and a successful exit. But there’s more to it than that —and the story starts 56 years ago in communist China.
Fu was born in Nanjing but grew up in Shanghai after her parents asked her aunt and uncle to raise her. It was a happy and stable childhood.
But in 1966, when she was eight, her cousins and uncle were sent away for “re-education” by the Communist Party.
The Red Guard next stated that Fu belonged in Nanjing. She was sent there by herself and made it just in time to see her parents apprehended and sent off for re-education, too.
The only family member left in Nanjing was her four-year-old sister, Hong, whom her parents had raised themselves. Fu barely knew her. For a decade, Fu and her sister lived alone in a college dormitory, with Fu, starting at age 10, working in a factory as part of her education by workers. It later sparked her interest in the “mass customization” that 3D printing provides: the ability to make large quantities of personalized products.
After Chairman Mao died, Fu went to Suzhou University to study literature, but her research about China’s one-child policy proved controversial. She was given a choice: leave or face possible imprisonment or hard labour. Her family, released after Mao’s death, found a place for her at the University of New Mexico. “When I came to the United States, I didn’t speak much English,” says Fu. “I couldn’t continue my literature, so I went to study computer science. At the time, I told myself that instead of writing essays, I was writing the future not yet imagined.” It was the beginning of her American dream.
She ended up earning two degrees in computer science and was hired by the NCSA, where she was part of the team that wrote and released the first multimedia web browser, Mosaic. In 1994, the Mosaic team left the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to start a company called Netscape that went public in 1995, earning a market value of USD 2.9 billion at the end of its first day Observing her success, people kept asking Fu if she planned to start her own company. The answer was always no. Then came her eureka moment, and everything changed.
She founded Geomagic with her then-husband, Herbert Edelsbrunner, and the two set to work on Geomagic’s flagship product: 3D imaging software that would enable customized 3D printing.
Although a computer scientist at heart, Fu took on the role of CEO in Geomagic’s early days. But she didn’t conform to the stereotypical image of a business leader — and not just because she is a Chinese-American woman in a sector dominated by white men.
For one thing, she is happy to admit she doesn’t know everything. That candor saved Geomagic in 2001 after the CEO she’d hired as her successor two years earlier lost USD 4 million and left her with just three months’ worth of operating capital. “I was a learning CEO at that point, soI needed collective wisdom,” she says. She called a staff meeting and said, “I may have strong opinions, but I’m going to try to be clear, rather than right, and I need you all to help me. Because with your help, we will make more right decisions than wrong ones, and we will survive.” Every single person agreed to stay with Fu and Geomagic, even though the company’s future was far from certain.
From 2001 to 2003, sales tripled under her leadership. “The strategy was to look for high-value and high-volume industries where people will pay thousands of dollars for one product, not a few hundred,” says Fu. “There were not very many. Dental and medical was one. Turbine machinery was one. We zoomed into those markets, and it worked. I didn’t need a very large sales team to sell our products, and I didn’t have to sell many to make enough money to support the company.”
Geomagic’s success caught the eye of 3D Systems, which was co-founded by Chuck Hull, the man who inspired Fu all those years ago. There began a decade of collaboration, culminating in Geomagic’s sale in 2013.
For Fu, it was the right time to sell and join 3D Systems. “I was able to come to this company and not only contribute but learn a whole lot of new things I did not know before,” she says. “I didn’t know hardware, I didn’t know material, I didn’t know services, I didn’t know a lot of things. That’s something I really love: to continue learning. “Climbing is the metaphor of success, but I think it’s the journey, not the peak, that’s interesting,” she adds. “In business, people often ask where you want to be in five years: ‘What’s your exit strategy?’ But it’s not about where I want to be — it’s about how I travel.” It’s an attitude particularly suited to science generally and to the 3D printing industry specifically, which started 30 years ago, and continues to expand exponentially with new technologies, materials and applications. Today, 3D Systems has seven core print technologies and more than 120 materials, ranging from plastics and metals to ceramics and even sugar. The applications for 3D printing are endless — from engine prototypes to flight-ready aerospace parts, from a surgical trial run to medical implants, from a designer dress to intricate confections.
The transformational power of 3D printing and the impact on lives is perhaps most evident in health care. 3D Systems is shaping the industry with an end-to-end digital thread, from surgical simulation and training to virtual surgical planning and 3D printing of anatomical models, surgical instruments, implants and medical devices.
Fu describes one example of using 3D printing and scanning to make devices like scoliosis braces more comfortable and attractive. The technology in prosthetics development and production is evolving, too; advanced scanning is improving the final printed product. “The patient’s good leg is scanned and then a mirror-image is created, so the prosthetic can be printed in the individual’s own shape and symmetry,” Fu explains.
“Custom designs can also be created, providing a prosthetic with functionality, symmetry and beauty.” Another frontier is food: printing a customizable bar of chocolate or an intricate cake topper printed in sugar.3D Systems is working with the Hershey Company and The Culinary Institute of America to do just that. Fu’s experience with 3D scanning and design tools continues to advance 3D Systems’ portfolio beyond 3D printers to full design to fabrication solutions. She spearheaded the development of several scanning technologies for 3D Systems, including a handheld consumer scanner and the iSense scanner device for the iPhone and iPad, which bring new image capture tools to the consumer. She also led 3D Systems’ partnership with Intel to bring its 3DMe application to the Intel RealSense 3D camera.
For Fu herself, it’s been a remarkable journey so far“. In some ways, 3D printing can take your idea and make it real,” she says. “And I feel like I’m kind of that object — that the American dream is a concept and my story makes it real. “I think some people who grew up here don’t really realize how lucky we are in this country — the freedom we have, the opportunity, the diversity,” she adds. “I don’t think any country in the world has the kind of soil that we have here.
“How many times do people have the opportunity to work for a leading company in a fast-growing market and also be in a space where you truly believe this technology will change everyone’s life?” she concludes. “It is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
All other stories on exciting people around the globe can be had from the second link below.
A brief history of printing
The ancient Mesopotamians use round seals to roll impressions into clay tablets.
Early 2nd century AD:
The oldest surviving example of block printing, used to print words and images on textiles, is from China in 220.
German silversmith Johannes Gutenberg creates the first European press to use moveable type.
Lithography is invented by Bavarian author Aloys Senefelder. This chemical-based method is still used today.
Robert Barclay invents offset printing on tin in England.
Independently, Ira Washington Rubel invents offset printing on paper in the United States.
Benny Landa invents the first digital printing press, the E-Print 1000.