“Life is like a mountain range,” Ping Fu told a group of UNC-Chapel Hill students last week.
Fu is the founder of Geomagic, Inc., which developed the computer code that made 3-D printing possible. Earlier this year, she sold Geomagic to Spartanburg, S. C., based 3D Systems Corp., a manufacturer of 3-D printing machines, for a reported $55 million.
Three-dimensional printing makes it possible to duplicate an object with the same ease that a laser printer copies a page from a book. It is changing the way we think about manufacturing. Using the proper computer directions for a 3-D printer, you can make spare parts for critical but distant machines.
Back in 1997, soon after first hearing about 3-D printing, Ping Fu decided immediately that she wanted to be a part of the revolution such machines would bring.
In trying to persuade others to invest in her new company, she described the potential of the three-dimensional printing process by asking her listeners to imagine a microwave-oven-shaped box and a similar box many miles away. By placing an object in the first box and pressing a button that scans the object, the information is sent to the far-away box, where the transmitted information guides the making of a duplicate.
Early on, she saw the potential of “personal fabrication” or localized manufacturing.
She founded Geomagic to turn ideas into reality, and moved the company to North Carolina’s Research Triangle in 1999.
Geomagic’s first major client was NASA, scanning tiles on the space shuttle so that damaged tiles could be evaluated, duplicated, and replaced in space. The process was covered by CNN, and when it was broadcast in China, Ping Fu’s father, having seen the report, declared to his daughter by telephone from China, “I’m so proud of you.”
Other uses for the 3D printing process enable orthodontists to develop a teeth-straightening plan for teenagers to have a series of devices manufactured by 3-D printing specifically for each patient’s mouth.
“American workers,” Ping Fu told the students, “need to be committed to learn that the future of manufacturing is hyper-local.”
Ping Fu pointed to her stylish shoes that had been made by a 3-D printer. The shoes were molded to fit her foot with her choice of colors. They could be made to order on site in a shoe store that would never have to stock anything that was not going to be sold the same day.
Since the sale of Geomagic, Ping Fu has become vice president and chief strategy officer for 3D Systems. The operations of the former Geomagic remain in North Carolina, but she travels around the world on behalf of her new employer, inspiring co-workers, customers, and potential partners to join the localized manufacturing revolution.
Now, why does she say life is like a mountain range?
Like following the crest of a mountain range from one peak to another, says Ping Fu, if you are going forward to the next peak, you have to go down before you can go up again.
To go forward in life and reach a new goal, she told the students, “You may have to take a job that pays less or one where your title is lower.”
In her journey from the oppression of the Chinese Cultural Revolution to great success as an American business leader, Ping Fu’s life has had its peaks and valleys, all related in greater detail in her memoir Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, which comes out in paperback next month.
Ping Fu says the best advice she ever got was to seek more to be interested than to be interesting. Great advice, but hard for her to follow when her story is so important, so inspiring, and so interesting.