DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

You've probably never heard of Ping Fu. But chances are, her work has touched you in some way. Fu has spent decades envisioning new uses for computers. Now she thinks her company, Geomagic, is really on to something, a technology that can scan and recreate three-dimensional objects.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch has this profile of Ping Fu and the technology, which its creator says could revolutionize manufacturing.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

Ping Fu is a petite, polite woman with wispy bangs and a gentle smile. She tries to keep her hands folded demurely on the desk in front of her, but when she gets excited, they won't stay put.

Ms. PING FU (President and CEO, Geomagic): I predict that this would be the biggest breakthrough of 21st-century. It would change the way the product is made, designed, produced and sold.

SCHALCH: This may sound far-fetched, but Fu is serious. And she's come up with some pretty good ideas in the past. She once led a research team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. One of the graduate students she hired was Mark Andreesen.

Ms. FU: And he didn't like mathematics. So he asked me what project could he work on. I said how about a browser? He said, what browser? I said, well, a browser is a graphic use interface from which people can access text, images, songs, videos, whatever, and then he said, cool.

SCHALCH: That's how Netscape was born. Among her other projects, a movie called Terminator 2. It was her first collaboration with her husband, a mathematician named Herbert Edelsbrunner. The villain in the movie was a robot, and he had to melt into liquid metal, but the computer software wasn't working.

Ms. FU: It didn't look like the metal melting down, so I went to Herbert and said, we can't get this done. It's 11 months now and we gonna run out of time. He said, what you trying to do? I described to him, and he said, oh, I write you a formula. So he wrote me a mathematic formula and I implement it.

SCHALCH: That did the trick. Fu's overcome other challenges. She grew up in China, and between the ages of eight and 18, she never set foot in a classroom. It was the time of the cultural revolution. Educated people like Fu's parents were condemned, exiled, and many were killed. Children like Fu and her sister were left behind and forced to atone for their parents' sins. They were starved.

Ms. FU: They would make food like mud mixed with the tree barks and grass. They mixed together and cooked them and then make us eat them.

SCHALCH: They had to denounce themselves, too.

Ms. FU: I said, you know, I'm bug, I can be squashed by anyone. Anyone can kill me because my life is worthless.

SCHALCH: Red Guard soldiers threw Fu's little sister into a pond to drown. Fu jumped in and pulled her out, so the soldiers punished her by beating and raping her. She was 10. Schools reopened when Ping Fu was 18. She studied journalism and spent two years investigating rumors that China's one-child policy was prompting couples to kill their baby girls.

Fu's student project got picked up by the People's Daily. It quickly became a story outside of China, too, drawing condemnation from human rights advocates. The story Party officials had once praised was now an embarrassment. Fu was thrown in prison.

Ms. FU: I was preparing to die, and then I was given a chance to live.

SCHALCH: But she was ordered to leave China and never return. In a way, Fu thinks these hardships have helped her in her new life as a high-tech entrepreneur.

Ms. FU: Because as an entrepreneur you have to have certain characteristics like learning on the fly, like being able to take extreme pressure and make the right decision, like being humble and being willing to do anything and everything.

SCHALCH: Fu's company is called Geomagic. It's headquartered in a nondescript building crammed with gray cubicles in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park. Applications engineer Rob Black demonstrates how Geomagic's technology, called digital shape sampling and processing, works. He picks up a small turbine blade from an aircraft engine, sets it on a circular plate, and rotates it under an optical scanner.

Mr. ROB BLACK (Applications Engineer, Geomagic): It works exactly like your eyes work, so it's a stereoscopic image. So the difference between the angle from each viewpoint will give you the information for how far away that point is, and if you do that over millions of points, what you end up with is an exact representation of the entire part.

SCHALCH: Black swivels his chair around and taps a few keys on the computer. A picture pops onto the screen, a ghostlike image of the blade made entirely of dots, millions of points in virtual space. Now Black connects the dots.

Mr. BLACK: You take each point. In-between that point and its two nearest neighbors we fit a tiny little triangle, and we do that over the entire model, and so you end up with a faceted representation of the geometry.

SCHALCH: There's one more step, one Geomagic invented. A few more keystrokes and Black has digitally shrink-wrapped the image, smoothing out the surface to generate an exact copy in cyberspace. Virtual 3-D images can be inspected, redesigned and tested, and used to manufacture perfect replicas. Andrew Stein, who handles business development, says this has already provided novel solutions to some vexing problems such as what to do if terrorists attack the Statue of Liberty.

Mr. ANDREW STEIN (Vice President of Marketing, Product and Business Development, Geomagic): The Statue of Liberty was identified after 9/11 as something that would be unreproducible. They only had drawings and engineering documentation for the structural steel inside the hand-pounded, hand-formed copper robes.

SCHALCH: Geomagic software created an exact digital model. NASA has begun using digital shape sampling and processing to precisely replicate damaged space shuttle tiles on Earth while the shuttle is still in orbit and test how well they'll withstand the heat and stress of reentering the atmosphere. Automotive and aerospace manufacturers are using the technology to engineer precision parts. A company called Invisalign is using it to manufacture plastic braces.

Dr. HANI TERRIANI(ph) (Orthodontist): And open up really wide. Thank you.

SCHALCH: Orthodontist Hani Terriani explains to a patient how they work.

Dr. TERRIANI: You get a series of these, the little, like, almost like a tight-fitting glove that fits on your teeth, and they're made from a three-dimensional computer images of your teeth that are scanned. They slowly but surely move your teeth into the proper position.

SCHALCH: Terriani says each patient gets a new aligner every two weeks.

Dr. TERRIANI: And it's amazing that a company can make this for so many, you know, hundreds of thousands of people and customize it for each person.

SCHALCH: Ping Fu says doctors will soon use this technology to custom make prosthetic joins and other medical devices that fit and function better, and eventually, she predicts, even clothes and shoes will be made to order this way. She calls this mass customization and says it will make today's mass production obsolete. Then, she says, stores stacked to the ceiling with blue jeans will seem quaint, even silly.

Ms. FU: The younger generation will say, God, my parents buy pants like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

They should be able to pick styles, accessories, da-da-da-da-da, and say, Build it to my shape.

SCHALCH: Ping Fu says it's really just a matter of time. Kathleen Schalch, NPR News.

ELLIOTT: To see a photo of Ping Fu and hear about the world's first 3-D printer, go to our website, NPR.org.

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