For Ken Brace, founder and owner of Rapid Prototyping Services (RPS), a 3D Printing Services and Manufacturing company, the original plan, upon graduating from The University of Central Florida with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, was to go work for Harris Corporation or a similar local company. Those plans changed, about a month before graduation, when Brace received a call from his father. The factory he was running was moving offshore and he was set to lose his job.
"My dad said, 'I've always wanted to start a business. Will you help me?'. I said, 'Yeah dad, why not'." From 1984 to 2001, Brace and his father owned and operated a precision sheet metal company. They grew the business to 100 employees operating on two 10 hour shifts. By 2001, Brace's father was ready to retire. The original plan was for Brace to buy out his father and continue running the business.
"The original plan changed," Brace said. "By then, I was married with two kids. It just wasn't a good quality of life at that point. I'd get calls in the middle of the night from the midnight foreman. There'd be an issue with a project or a machine operator didn't show up for his shift. It was a 24/7 business having to manage all of those employees across two 10 hour shifts. We decided to sell the business."
For the next several years, Brace did some engineering consulting work. In 2004, when most of us knew nothing about 3D Printing, Brace saw a need for local 3D Printing that wasn't being addressed. He followed his intuition and purchased a $20,000 piece of equipment to help address that need. Knowing what the payback period looked like for manufacturing equipment, Brace started small. He also reached out to his previous customers, whose trust he earned while operating the precision sheet metal company. Many were interested in utilizing the new technology, allowing Brace to quickly develop a customer base.
Brace officially incorporated RPS in 2007. Within a year, Brace had enough business to justify the purchase of a second 3D printing machine. Today, he has over $1 Million in equipment on the floor. RPS brings CAD files and design ideas to life utilizing the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) method of manufacturing. While the majority rely on lasers or light to cure layers of resin or printing technology to solidify material, FDM uses a heated tip to incrementally deposit layers of molten ABS, which is fed into the system from cartridges of filament.
"We've definitely steered towards manufacturing," Brace said. "With FDM, we picked a technology that could be used as an end product. For some clients, we're doing up to 500 pieces before they go to conventional manufacturing. It's more expensive per piece, but they can change things on the fly and not be locked into a mold. They're also getting the same final product as they would with a mold and they're avoiding the $20,000 to $30,000 in up-front costs for the mold."
Brace shared that RPS is also doing fixturing and tooling. That includes about 2,000 tools for the Orion spacecraft. NASA was machining their tools for the spacecraft, but have since accepted 3D Printing so much that it's replacing their machined items. They were waiting two to three weeks for the machine shop. Brace can provide the tools overnight.
Brace really enjoys the variety of his work. "We're doing something different everyday for a different industry," he said. "We'll do a defense part one morning and then a part for an inventor in the afternoon. For inventors, we represent a big step in getting their product patented so they can ultimately go to market. Some of our commercial jobs will run the machines for a couple days around the clock. It's always something different."
Looking ahead, Brace sees 3D Printing getting faster and complimenting injection molding very well, but never fully replacing it. He sees alternative uses, such as printing organs, as a very real possibility. He's closely watching metal printing and seeing how it's evolving. According to Brace, printing in metals is maturing and will begin to replace things they've machined in the past. He also likes to stay abreast of new technology. By serving as a beta site for one of his machine manufacturers, Brace is able to test out new plastics and provide feedback. It's a win win for both parties.
Brace offers up some great advice for aspiring entrepreneurs that are hesitating to take the plunge. "If it doesn't scare you a little bit, you probably shouldn't do it," he said. "Feel out the market, start small and go for it. Whatever you do, don't mortgage the house. Start small. Get a feel for how things are going and grow at a controlled pace."