3D Services Company Expands Worldwide Through Intentional Growth
Only 2,500 square feet of workspace, over $1 million in equipment, one employee and one cocker spaniel named Pepper. Founder Ken Brace doesn’t need anything more to run Rapid Prototyping Services, his 3D printing company in Satellite Beach. The operation has changed in a lot of ways since its founding in 2004 — expanding from a 500-square-foot facility and only one used $10,000 machine on the floor — but he has learned over the course of more than 30 years just what it means to grow, as he puts it, “intentionally.”
Brace’s first foray into owning a business came before he graduated from college. He was just two weeks away from completing his engineering degree from the University of Central Florida when the news came that the company where his dad worked would be shutting down.
“He asked me to help him start his own business, and I thought, ‘Sure, I’ll help for a couple of months.’” Brace and his father wound up running that company, Hi-Tech Fabrications, together for 17 years, making sheet metal cabinetry for the electronics industry.
When his dad decided to retire, Brace was ready to start a new chapter. “We always planned on me just buying out his half. But in the time since we had started, so much had changed,” Brace said, referring not only to his industry, but to his own life. “In those 17 years, I had gotten married and started a family. I had many more priorities than running a factory, and the burden of having employees was wearing on me.”
So he looked into what he knew was a rapidly growing manufacturing sector: 3D printing. After running the idea past his father and conducting more research, they made a decision: They would sell Hi-Tech Fabrications, his father would retire — although Brace still calls on him in an unofficial consulting role — and Rapid Prototyping Services would be Brace’s next entrepreneurial endeavor.
Now nearing its 20th anniversary, Rapid Prototyping Services serves clients in nearly every industry, using industrial printers that can run 24/7 without constant supervision to create three-dimensional models using fused plastic filament fabrication. Building the parts from the ground up using 3D computer-aided design (CAD), printers deposit the material layer by layer until the model is finished.
Brace has been attentive to the company’s growth, with incredible results. “I was really careful not to overextend myself,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people overextend themselves and fall into debt. I wanted to be intentional about our growth.” Now, in addition to the company’s expanded floor space and acquisition of new equipment worth nearly 100 times the value of his first machine, Brace’s client pool has expanded both in types of industry and locales.
“Locally a lot of my customers are in the defense industry,” he said, referencing clients that include Northrop Grumman and Harris as well as smaller companies started by engineers who serve that industry. “But it also includes artists who come to 3D print things they have created on their computers.”
And 2020 brought an increase in another kind of clientele: the inventor. “I have people coming to me a lot more often saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to invent this, and I have all this extra time now,’” he said. As loyal customers move to different parts of the country or the world, they often still count on Brace, who can ship anywhere.
Some things have remained the same, though. Brace still only prints in plastics, deciding to perfect that medium and partner with other companies for metal or bioprinting for the medical field. And he is still the sole employee. That is, unless you count his officemate, Pepper. “It’s the dog and me. She comes to work with me, and she has even cleared a space on my desk where she can look out my window,” he said with a laugh.
Learning on the Job
Brace didn’t expect to be self-employed for his entire career, and it didn’t happen without a learning curve.
“With my first company, my dad and I were both learning together, and we knew we had to make it work,” he said. “It was nervewracking those first years. We were out there trying to sell ourselves among competitors who had been established for 10 or 20 years. We really had to focus on quality and customer service.”
When it came time to start Rapid Prototyping Services, some of those nerves were still there. But this time, Brace had a few guideposts to light the way.
“It’s important to research your industry and what you’re offering well, and to make sure that whatever business you’re in will have a market. And no matter what you do, remember that it boils down to customer service,” he said. When he launched Rapid Prototyping Services, he remembered: “I just started calling guys I had worked with on the sheet metal side for years and getting the word out. They knew I could do a good job for them, and that carried weight.”