Recent developments in 3D printing are making it possible for custom-fit shoes to be quickly created (these ones created by 3D Systems' Freedom of Creation), with a special iPhone holder, customized to Ping's foot size and printed on a 3D Systems printer.
In the Fall of 1996 I was thinking about starting a company, but I had no idea of what or who the company would be serving. 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. This was the height of the Internet era, and everywhere people were chattering about starting dot-com companies.
“I don’t want to create another dot-com company,” I told Herbert (Edelsbrunner), co-founder of Geomagic.
He laughed. “Well, at least you know now what it is that you don’t want to do.”
“I want to create something of value,”
I asked myself 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. I knew about the subtractive (milling) and formative (casting) process. But this was different; it was additive. The machine laid down material a layer at a time, making it capable of recreating complex shapes that couldn’t be milled or casted. And it depended on 3D computer models; something I had worked on for many years that seemed to be a great fit for this new way of 3D printing. My head spun with possibilities.
I had already been working many years on 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 ‘ah ha’ 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.
This all seemed exciting, but why? Why should I do this, and why would people want to pay for such a system? My sister Hong had founded a retail clothing shop in Scottsdale, AZ. 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 customers wanted always seemed to be missing. In the 19th 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 20th Century, such personalized products gave way to factory assembly lines. Scale was achieved and costs plummeted, but the products became standardized. As a result, stores wound up with sales racks full of shoes that nobody wanted because so many didn’t fit quite right — size, shape, or style.
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 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 as I climbed into bed. 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 the business. Working in factories had engrained 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 from where it came — 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.