Even after 15 years in the business, Ken Brace steadfastly continues plugging away at his techno-craft, producing parts, widgets, and even anatomically correct samples from his modest but well-equipped 3D “print” shop in Satellite Beach. All the while, his customer base continues to grow.
That pretty much describes Rapid Prototyping Services, a company started in 2004 after Brace scrapped a sheet-metal business he had operated with his father.
The “print” is three-dimensional printing — a high-tech manufacturing process of making solid plastic objects from digital files of computer-aided designs. During the process, successive layers of material are layered by machine until the object is created in exacting detail.
In essence, a design that can be detailed and viewed on a computer screen is reproduced by Brace’s specialty equipment for area engineers, inventors and other customers seeking immediate, tangible feedback on their creations.
“The gist of 3D printing is you don’t have to wait for a machine shop to do it….I can service them so well when they’re local. Some of the engineers will give me a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file in the afternoon and pick up the part on their way into work the next morning,” he said.
Most of his clients are from local defense and aerospace industries and related commercial spinoff companies. Brace lauds the manufacturing environment across the county, calling it “first class.” Heightened activity at Cape Canaveral and the continued expansion of companies such as Northrop Grumman have been particular boons to his business, helping to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
The medical field also has begun requesting prototyping services from Brace.
“I’m getting my hands into a lot of different areas. The medical guys are starting to realize what we can do with medical imaging,” said Brace, a 1986 engineering graduate of the University of Central Florida.
Using the results from an MRI, for example, one surgeon had Brace 3D print the nasal cavity of a patient before surgery. Sterilized, the nasal cavity sat on a table during the medical procedure as a visual aid.
Similarly, Brace has 3D printed a patient’s congestive heart for another doctor, “so there are no surprises when they get in there,” he said.
He’s printed a hip ball joint, too, again from an MRI, enabling a doctor to know exactly how worn the joint was before initiating surgery. “This medical [piece] adds a whole new realm to the work I am doing,” Brace commented.
Indeed, 3D printing is a big deal. Recently, in response to the pandemic, Florida Tech engineers used their prototyping equipment to print safety masks for medical professionals and first responders.
The prototyping industry is experiencing tremendous growth as technologies advance and as new materials are used to create end products. Bio-products such as bones, muscles and ears have been printed and successfully attached in animal trials. Foods have been printed, buildings erected, tools and even bullets and guns – all 3D printed.
At Brace’s business, the setting is decidedly low key. First, Brace himself is casual and friendly, and the same could be said for his “business partner,” Pepper, a female Cocker Spaniel who doubles as greeter at the door.
“It can get hectic at times, but most of the time it’s manageable,” he said.
Even so, the office is quite impressive, highlighted by six large Stratasys Ltd. 3D printers capable of running nonstop. Stratasys is a recognized leader in 3D printers and production systems for office-based rapid prototyping and direct digital manufacturing.
In the past two years, Brace has invested in additional equipment and added roughly 1,000 square feet to the shop.
“I’ve got a million dollars’ worth of equipment on the floor and no employees…It’s awesome.”
Brace’s easy tone belies his experience with machinery. In his previous sheet-metal business, it wasn’t uncommon for 70 people working two 10-hour shifts to be on the floor. When it was sold, Brace said the company had about $5 million in machinery.
Actually, metal might be back in his future. While 3D printing in metals has been around for some time, it’s emerging as a go-to resource for large manufacturers. One example: General Electric Co. has qualified 3D metal printing for jet engines — with technology that works much like a home inkjet printer, but instead involving a flat bed of metal powder.
The changes have caught Brace’s eye.
[3D printing in metal] is not a new segment, but it’s a maturing segment that’s getting a lot of attention. … I’m watching it with interest,” he said, adding that, as always, the goal in manufacturing is to make something better, faster and less expensive than in the past.
In the meantime, Brace continues to “give back,” working with the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast to help attract new companies to the area and promote the power of manufacturing to high school students as a career option.
Notably, he has been a regular donor of 3D printers to a group of young engineers at his alma mater. Limbitless Solutions, a central Florida nonprofit organization at UCF, specializes in creating and donating personalized 3D-printed prosthetic arms for children and is receiving national and international acclaim for their efforts.
He is grateful for the opportunity to help, and in his easy manner, thankful as well.
“I’m fortunate,” he said.