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July 20, 2009

Geomagic: Expanding Tools for a 3-D World

From shoes to the space shuttle, advanced 3-D imaging streamlines cost and safety

What do space shuttle safety measures and modern shoemaking have in common?

Both use a 3-D design and engineering technology that streamlines a wide range of inspection and manufacturing processes.

"Once you digitize something, you can do a lot of manipulation, storing, editing and information sharing. We have already seen it in music, we have seen it in publishing, and what Geomagic is doing is taking it to the next level," said Ping Fu, CEO of Geomagic.

The Research Triangle Park, N.C., company is the industry leader in the technology called digital shape sampling and processing, or DSSP. It starts with scanning an object--from a race car to a human body--with optical beams. A camera inside the scanner transmits millions-up-to-a-billion points to a computer.

Connecting the dots

"One of our jobs is to convert the physical into the digital, so it can be used for video games, manufacturing, archiving or testing," said Geomagic engineer Kevin Scofield.

He said Geomagic made its mark by figuring out how to "connect those dots"--to turn those millions of points into information that can be used in CAD-CAM, computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing.

NASA uses the technology to identify damage to the space shuttle. Flying debris during liftoff can harm the orbiter's protective tiles. That's what caused the 2003 Columbia tragedy, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts. Since then, shuttle and space station crews have used cameras to document any gouges or dents on the spacecraft. Back on Earth, a 3-D model of the damage is created, so spacewalkers can use the proper tools to make potentially life-saving repairs.

"When I grew up, I wanted to be an astronaut," said Fu. "The reason the NASA space shuttle application is so interesting to me, being part of it, is to realize my childhood dream."

Fu is an unlikely technology powerhouse.

An inspiring life story

She survived horrific ordeals growing up in China during Mao Tse-Tung's Cultural Revolution. She and her younger sister could not go to school. Capitalism and intellectuals were condemned. She both witnessed and endured violence, brainwashing and malnutrition for more than a decade.

"When life was very dark and the whole society was in chaos, the little bit of kindness from someone else, I would latch onto it," said Fu. She said an uncle, who seemed aware that a horrible time was coming, taught her optimism and resilience when she was very young.

At age 23, she was thrown in prison--but as fate would have it, instead of being executed, she was deported to the United States.

"I did not know I would become a business woman. Because when I was in China, I was brainwashed 'money was evil,'" she laughed.

She learned English, studied literature and worked as a waitress before earning degrees in computer science. She worked at Bell Labs and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, one of the original sites of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Supercomputer Centers program. There, Fu and her team were instrumental in developing new geometry algorithms that made possible the morphing special effects in the film, "Terminator 2." Those improvements led to big changes in the special effects now seen in many movies, television shows and video games.

With her expertise in computer visualization, she created Geomagic in 1997. She navigated the company through the dot-com bust, and through its current growth, with offices across the United States, Europe and Asia. In 2005, Inc. magazine chose her "Entrepreneur of the Year." When she shared a stage with former President Bill Clinton, he was so impressed with her amazing story that he immediately recruited her to help nurture young women entrepreneurs as part of his foundation work.

NSF has awarded Geomagic several grants to improve its technologies for product design and development.

From shoes to treasures

Geomagic software is used widely to modernize manufacturing. Timberland, a New Hampshire-based shoe company, uses the software to make "lasts," a type of model that has been used by shoemakers for centuries. By digitally scanning existing lasts to alter for new styles, the company says it has reduced waste and gets new shoes to market faster.

After the attacks of 9-11, Geomagic worked on a project to scan and document every inch of the Statue of Liberty. So, if a terrorist attack destroyed the national treasure, it could be rebuilt exactly.

"That is our nation's symbol, a symbol of freedom. When the government called, we put our people on the project. So now, they not only have all engineering data, but all wear and tear, coloration; it is fascinating to be able to participate in something like that," said Fu.

Fu would like to see her company's technology revitalize U.S. manufacturing--replacing "one size fits all" with "mass customization." This concept is currently being used in dentistry, for dental implants, and orthodontics, to provide appliances that are customized for each patient.

Customers have also used the technology for some unusual applications.

"One of my favorites involved a fraudulent Picasso statue that was planning to go to auction," said Geomagic's Scofield. While the "suspect" statue looked like one that was known to be an original, a laser scan revealed a smoking gun.

"Bronze will shrink," said Scofield. "So if they were made with the same mold, they should be the exact same volume. In fact, they were not," he said.

The original had shrunk about 9 percent, the fraud by 14 percent. So the auction was cancelled.

"It's not something you promote the product for, but someone found that use for it," said Scofield.

Seeing the future?

"I do believe design and manufacturing is the backbone of the country," said Fu. "We shouldn't lose it. We can take it back. Why can't we be the powerhouse of the 21st century and leverage the technology, lead the world into a better place, more sustainable, more green? Build more of what we want, build less of what we don't want," said Fu.

"People call me visionary. I don't think I am a visionary, but what I am good at is linking real-world application with invention and innovation. I'm always interested in taking a great idea and making it useful and impactful for society. That is my calling," she said.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.