People - June 2006

She believes her software can size up manufacturing
by Chris Richter

Ping Fu thinks a lot about your shoes. As president and CEO of Geomagic Inc., a Research Triangle Park software developer, she sees a future when manufacturers will turn out goods customized for each buyer. Your shoes will be made to fit the contours of your feet. Your jeans, that of your seat. “Mass customization is all about combining the customized part of craftsmanship with the efficiency of mass production.”

The business she and her husband started 10 years ago specializes in digital shape sampling and processing. Using an optical scanner, Geomagic’s software creates exact three-dimensional images of objects. Automotive, aerospace and plastics companies already rely on it for customization as well as quality control and modeling.

Fu, 48, grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Separated from her parents by Maoist Red Guards, she didn’t attend school from age 7 to 18. While studying literature at the university in Suzhou, she spent two years investigating the killing of baby girls, a practice that resulted from her nation’s one-child-per-family policy. Chinese newspapers published stories based on her research in 1981. When they appeared in the foreign press, it caused an international uproar.

Having embarrassed Beijing, Fu landed in a prison cell for three days. It was a problem the government couldn’t solve by executing her. “If they killed a reporter who did a report on human rights and called for the [end of the killing] of baby girls, how would that seem to the international media?” So China kicked her out, exiling her to the United States.

Sent to the University of New Mexico to study languages, she later moved to the West Coast and earned a bachelor’s in computer science in 1986 from the University of California, San Diego. While in graduate school at the University of Illinois, she worked on visualization and graphics at its National Center for Supercomputing Applications. She was involved with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which revolutionized computer graphics in movies.

Fu and husband Herbert Edelsbrunner, a computer-science professor at Illinois, were intrigued by how digital shape sampling and processing might transform manufacturing. They started Geomagic 10 years ago with $500,000 from her brother-in-law and moved it to RTP three years later when Duke University hired Edelsbrunner.

The company nearly failed. The management team brought in to run it had no experience with startups, she says, and spent too much. When she took over as CEO in 2000, there were 50 employees. Within three months, there were 23. Two years later, Geomagic was profitable. It now has about 100 employees and $15 million annual revenue.

Fu is convinced manufacturing will evolve. “The same product running down an assembly line is no longer innovation. But each customized product running down an assembly line is innovation. There’s no reason shoes coming down the assembly line have to be the same.”