During his 30-year career as a retailer of motorcycles, snowmobiles, and ATVs, one of Tim Swenson’s hobbies was touring manufacturing plants to find out how things were built. “I never dreamed I’d be in the manufacturing business someday,” he says. But Swenson’s curiosity and the knowledge he acquired along the way would eventually serve him — and others — well.
On an October night in 1998, Swenson received a phone call: His 16-year-old son, Jeff, had been in a car accident, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Over the following weeks and months, Swenson watched his son, an avid outdoorsman, struggle to adapt to a wheelchair. He started thinking of ways to help.
A few years later, a brother-in-law of Swenson’s other son, Jim, was paralyzed in a diving accident in Washington.
With a heightened sense of urgency, Swenson soon hit upon an idea: What about putting snowmobile-style tracks on a wheelchair? In the fall of 2008, he cobbled together his first Action Trackchair prototype, using the tinkering skills he’d developed helping out at his father’s car-truck dealership and junkyard in Oklee, Minnesota. In 2009, Swenson sold his dealership to Jim and launched Action Manufacturing
Based in the southwest Minnesota city of Marshall, the firm today manufactures and sells five models of Action Trackchairs in varying widths, as well as four varieties of Action Trackstanders, a model that allows users to stand upright while safely held in place. The track-equipped vehicles enable people with disabilities to navigate rough terrain and participate in outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, and hiking.
Building a chair for the disabled equipped with tracks rather than wheels is one of those seemingly simple — in hindsight — ideas that may engender the question, “Why didn’t somebody think of this before?”
Whatever the answer, many users consider the products nothing less than a godsend. Among them is Aaron Cross, a quadriplegic and St. Cloud–based motivational speaker. He owns both a Trackchair, which he took on a safari to Africa, and a Trackstander, which he’s used for hunting — including a bear-hunting trip in Canada.
Along with the tracks, a joystick steering system, and a battery range of 8 miles, the other key feature of both the Trackchair and Trackstander is the user’s ability to tilt the seat back and forward, Cross says. “It has a low center of gravity so that when you go up a hill you can ‘lean into it,’ and lean backwards coming down” — as a walking person would. In addition, being able to stand in the Trackstander provides better visibility in the wild and allows the user to avoid poor circulation from sitting for long periods. “[It] gives you independence on a grand scale,” Cross says.
Swenson’s decision to sell his dealership and launch a new company was not without risk. Since his device was the first of its kind, there was no pre-existing market for the Trackchair; he would have to develop one. Swenson built his first 10 chairs and began showing them at national hunting and “ability” expos, generating some excitement.
In the first year, he sold four Trackchairs. Gradually, word-of-mouth and Internet buzz began to build momentum. The firm stepped up its marketing efforts, which included a feature on a regional TV newscast, and several veterans groups took up the cause. One of those was the Semper Fi Fund, which provides chairs to disabled veterans.
In 2013, the company sold 533 units, more than twice the previous year. Its 2014 sales reached the 800 mark, and Swenson hopes the company’s move to a new, larger facility will enable it to make and sell 900 units this year.
Of course, rapid growth brings challenges. At times, the company has struggled to keep up with the growing demand for its products, which sell for $10,000 to $15,000 per unit. “How many to make is the ‘million dollar question,’”Swenson notes. Projections are based on input from the company’s network of distributors. “There’s also some guessing involved,” adds Action’s manufacturing supervisor, Kevin Moran.
Since 2009, the company has seen a relative increase in the cost of materials. “But for us that increase has been negated because we’re buying in larger quantities,” Swenson says. The price of steel is, and always will be, one of the most important variables for the company.
“The toughest thing in any manufacturing operation is to ‘roll back,’” says Swenson. “If you have 100 employees and can only justify 60, you’ll have to lay some off. If you have the materials to make 1,000 units and orders slow down, it’s difficult to go to a supplier and say ‘Cut my order in half.’ Then, the price per pound or piece is going to go up. There again, we have to be able to adjust our projections, every quarter or so, depending on orders.”
Supply chain management is one of the most crucial aspects of running a manufacturing operation, Swenson believes. “Every last part we use on the Trackchair has to be brought in, from raw steel to nuts and bolts. We have to make sure we have them when needed. There’s nothing worse than having orders in hand but not having enough parts on hand to meet the demand.”
The lead time for ordering some components, such as electronic controls, is two to three months. In ordering parts from about 40 different vendors, Moran uses “blanket orders” for “x” number of parts per month from the various suppliers.
In recent months, Moran says, Action has taken steps to add more automation to the manufacturing process, making jigs used in measuring the cutting parts and adding computer-controlled saws and milling machines.
Until recently, Action had housed its manufacturing operation in two adjacent buildings totaling 11,000 square feet. Now the company occupies a new 24,000-square-foot facility partially financed with a $240,000 low-interest loan from the Minnesota Investment Fund, through the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
“If we are approved for this code, all of a sudden, doctors will be able to prescribe the chair, and some insurance companies will pay for it,” Swenson says. “We could see some uptick in orders and production, but no one can predict how much. That’s the nature of manufacturing.”