IndyCar Engineer Shifts Gears to Manufacturing

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3rd Dimension begins with fine powder, then uses a laser to melt the powder and form the parts. 3rd Dimension begins with fine powder, then uses a laser to melt the powder and form the parts.

With a handful of “recovering racers” at the wheel, a small manufacturing operation in Indianapolis says it’s on the doorstep of explosive growth. Most of 3rd Dimension LLC’s employees are IndyCar alumni—several engineers and a machinist—who now use their skills in the additive manufacturing sector, which President Bob Markley says is progressing at a pace that rivals racecars. The former trackside engineer says “I was the guy on the radio you see drivers talking to,” but he’s now calling the shots for his business team.

3rd Dimension’s expertise is in laser powder bed fusion; direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) is the industry term, but a layperson would describe it as 3-D printing.

“We start with a very fine powder as feedstock, and we put that powder down roughly one-third of the thickness of a human hair,” says Markley. “Then we use a high-power laser to melt that powder where we want the part to form. So rather than starting with a traditional block of material and cutting away, you form the material where you want the part to be.”

Aerospace and defense comprise the majority of 3rd Dimension’s business, much of it under non-disclosure agreements that prevent Markley from sharing project details. However, he notes “our client list is unbelievable,” including Rolls-Royce and seven companies in Fortune 500’s top 50. The startup also provides consulting services for emerging metal additive technologies.

Racing accounts for less than 10 percent of its business, and the remainder involves prototypes or “one-off” jobs, including a recent unique project with Cummins. 3rd Dimension printed a component that was critical to repair the engine of the car that won the pole in the 1952 Indianapolis 500.

Markley says 3rd Dimension’s business is growing at a pole-winning clip—beyond what his seven employees can keep up with. The company recently announced an expansion that will bring its two Indianapolis facilities under one roof at a location in central Indiana yet to be determined. Markley expects to hire 45 additional employees in the next five years.

The investment will also add a quality control lab and materials testing lab; the startup develops much of the material it works with, but currently outsources the process, which it plans to bring in-house.

Markley says, because additive manufacturing is relatively new to the industry, it requires “a huge shift in mindset,” which can lead to skepticism, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, unrealistic expectations.

“We do have to fight through a lot of hype coming from the OEMs,” says Markley. “[Metal additive manufacturing] is like any other manufacturing process; you still have rules and limitations, but if you abide by those, it’s an extraordinarily powerful tool. There’s a perception that it’s going to replace traditional manufacturing, but it’s not; it’s a complementary process. It’s one more tool in the designer and engineer’s tool belt.”

Markley says 3rd Dimension is assisting a growing number of large manufacturers wanting to explore the process. He believes the biggest challenge is education—explaining what the process is as well as its capabilities and limitations.

“Too often, we see a part that was designed and produced traditionally thrown over the wall to us at the last minute,” says Markley. “The perception of additive manufacturing is that complexity is free, and you can print anything. That is quite far from the truth.”

With roots in racing, 3rd Dimension is comfortable working at the fast pace that additive manufacturing demands.

“There are incredible opportunities that aren’t that far out. Some projects in our pipeline are unbelievable and unheard of in the industry today,” says Markley. “We’re creating new efficiencies and changing the way designers design and parts are made. There’s so much to be excited about.”

Markley says his engineering experience in IndyCar has translated very well to additive manufacturing.
Markley says Indiana’s legacy in manufacturing has produced clients, but can also be “a double-edged sword.”
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