The Personal Factory: 1996–1999
Ping Fu knows what it’s like to be a child soldier, a factory worker, and a political prisoner. To be beaten and raped for the crime of being born into a well-educated family. To be deported with barely enough money for a plane ticket to a bewildering new land. To start all over, without family or friends, as a maid, waitress, and student.
Ping Fu also knows what it’s like to be a pioneering software programmer, an innovator, a CEO, and Inc. magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year. To be a friend and mentor to some of the best-known names in technology. To build some of the coolest new products in the world. To give speeches that inspire huge crowds. To meet and advise the president of the United States.
It sounds too unbelievable for fiction, but this is the true story of a life in two worlds.
Born on the eve of China’s Cultural Revolution, Ping was separated from her family at the age of eight. She grew up fighting hunger and humiliation and shielding her younger sister from the teenagers in Mao’s Red Guard. At twenty-five, she found her way to the United States; her only resources were $80 in traveler’s checks and three phrases of English: thank you, hello, and help.
Yet Ping persevered, and the hard-won lessons of her childhood guided her to success in her new homeland. Aided by her well-honed survival instincts, a few good friends, and the kindness of strangers, she grew into someone she never thought she’d be—a strong, independent, entrepreneurial leader. A love of problem solving led her to computer science, and Ping became part of the team that created NCSA Mosaic, which became Netscape, the Web browser that forever changed how we access information. She then started a company, Geomagic, that has literally reshaped the world, from personalizing prosthetic limbs to repairing NASA spaceships.
Bend, Not Break depicts a journey from imprisonment to freedom, and from the dogmatic anticapitalism of Mao’s China to the high-stakes, take-no-prisoners world of technology start-ups in the United States. It is a tribute to one woman’s courage in the face of cruelty and a valuable lesson on the enduring power of resilience.
The year 1996 was nearing its end and I was determined to get a company started. Xixi was three, sweet and chatty, and I truly enjoyed being a mother. Ironically, it took me a little over nine months to bring Geomagic to life as well.
I spent the first few months gathering information and researching potential business ideas before plunging into anything. I interviewed, and mostly just listened to, dozens of people: experts, scientists, and business founders—anyone with an opinion or an idea. I also attended conferences and learning sessions. This was the height of the Internet era, and everywhere people were chattering about starting dot-com companies. At a panel at NCSA with representatives from Kodak, Sun Microsystems, GE, Morgan Stanley, and IBM, each one proudly pronounced, “We are a dot-com company.”
That doesn’t make sense, I thought. Why would they call themselves dot-com companies? I had learned that whenever there were breakthroughs in transportation and communication, big things happened. The invention of the railroad, highway, and aerospace industries had helped transport people and goods to new places with unprecedented speed. The radio, telephone, and now Internet enabled us to access information and connect virtually. Those innovations in transportation and communication had fundamentally altered our perception of space and time. Nevertheless, when the telephone came into being, businesses didn’t rush to call themselves “phone companies” simply because they used the new device. Why should they redefine themselves as “dot-com companies” just because they now had a .com in their domain name?
“I don’t want to create another dot-com company,” I told Herbert one evening.
He nodded. “Well, at least you know now what it is that you don’t want to do.”
“I want to create something of value,” I said. This was my New Year’s resolution in 1997.
I asked three questions:
1. Why should I start a company?
2. What will it have to offer?
3. How can I build it?
One day, I saw a demo of a 3D printing machine called a stereolithography apparatus, or SLA . I was mesmerized by it. From my factory work in China, I knew the subtractive (milling) and formative (casting) process. But this was different—it was additive. Just as a regular printer lays down colored ink on a blank page in order to form two-dimensional words and pictures, this machine laid down printable materials—plastic, metal, or ceramic—a layer at a time. The SLA machine was capable of re-creating complex three-dimensional shapes that couldn’t be milled or casted.
Three-dimensional printers were not yet advanced enough to make complex consumer products like cars or cameras. But they could produce specialized parts for the space shuttle or one of Frank Gehry’s buildings. Engineers could print the parts in solid form as a prototype before sending their designs off to a factory for expensive manufacturing.
These printers depended on 3D computer models, which I wrote software to create at NCSA . Herbert was a leading research figure in the field of computational geometry. It was alpha shapes, a theory developed by Herbert and his PhD students, that had enabled us at NCSA to help scientists create and visualize 3D shapes on their computer screens that were either too small for our eyes to see or too large for our minds to comprehend—from the 3D structure of molecules to the shape composition of galaxies. I already knew that people were downloading alpha shapes software from the public domain site where we gave the software away for free, but I had not checked into what anyone other than the scientists at NCSA were using it for.
I discovered that many people were using the alpha shapes software to process data captured by 3D scanners—not medical CT and MRI scanners, but industrial ones made from digital cameras. With the aid of either a laser or light patterns, they would produce 3D point clouds. Imagine dots floating in space, arranged to cover the surface of an object to form an impression of its shape. In 2D digital pictures, those dots lie directly on the paper or flat screen; we call them pixels. In 3D, the dots are not projected onto a flat surface, but rather retain the depth of an object’s true shape in space.
This was my aha moment. State-of-the-art 3D appliances, such as 3D scanners and 3D printers, already existed. If we offered software that could take the data from 3D scanners, process it, and output it on 3D printers, our new company could do in three dimensions for desktop fabrication what Adobe had done for desktop publishing in two dimensions. My head spun with possibilities.
After graduating from UNM and starting a family, Hong had founded a specialty retail store in Scottsdale, Arizona. She told me that shoes were one of the most challenging merchandise items to carry because the store needed to stock so many different sizes and styles, yet the one the customer wanted always seemed to be missing. In the nineteenth century, cobblers measured people’s feet and made shoes to fit them precisely. But their skills were not scalable, and the shoes they custom made were costly. In the twentieth century, such personalized products gave way to factory assembly lines. Scale was achieved and costs plummeted, but the products became standardized. Stores carried racks full of shoes that nobody wanted because so many didn’t fit quite right—in size, shape, or style.
Ask a factory today to make you a single pair of shoes of your own design and you will be presented with a bill for thousands of dollars. If you produce thousands of shoes, each one of them will be much cheaper thanks to economies of scale. For a 3D printer, though, economies of scale matter far less. Its software can be endlessly tweaked so that it can make just about anything. The cost of setting up the machine is the same whether it prints one object or many. It will keep going, at about the same cost per item, until it runs out of materials, just like your home printer will keep going until it runs out of paper and ink.
I wondered, Could we develop technology and software to enable a digital form-fitting and manufacturing system that made shoes and thousands of other items that were both one of a kind and produced with the efficiency of mass production? “Mass customization”: I had heard people talk about it before, but so far it had come to mean little more than nonfat-soy extra-foam lattes and made-to-order jeans that still didn’t fit well.
I started to get excited. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. “We’ll call it the Personal Factory,” I told Mike Facello, a bright PhD student of Herbert’s who would become one of our first employees. “It’s intuitive. People already know the PC. Now we’ll have the PF.”
“Cute, Ping,” he observed. “You’ve managed to name an industry after your own initials.”
I was possessed by the idea of revolutionizing the manufacturing process, just as Henry Ford once had with his invention of the assembly line. That night when I fell asleep, I had a dream about the years I’d spent in factories in China. I awoke the next morning with visions of spinning parts and shining metal floating through my head. I found that I could recall details about those years that I hadn’t been able to for decades. I thought to myself, No wonder I came up with the “personal factory” idea for my business. Working in factories had ingrained not just the knowledge but also the visceral experience of manufacturing into my brain and body.
That day, I felt even more convinced that I should build a technology company to enable the “personal factory.” This was my destiny, I realized, my calling as an entrepreneur. I could see where it came from—the depths of my subconscious. For the first time since volunteering to create a business, I felt confident that I could actually do it because I had found my reason why.Excerpted from BEND, NOT BREAK: A Life in Two Worlds. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Ping Fu, 2012.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.