Tracks let wheelchair users go more places, do more things
December 3, 2012
About a decade after his son was paralyzed in an automobile accident, Tim Swenson put a few ideas to work and built an all-terrain wheelchair. Although he was retired, Swenson garnered quite a bit of interest with his invention, so he founded Action Manufacturing and builds two wheelchair models to help people like his son enjoy the outdoors.
Words like handicapped, disabled, and wheelchair-bound are on the way out; enabled is on the way in. Continuous advancements in technology help people compensate for limited use of their limbs, paralysis, or amputations. At the same time, sports like wheelchair rugby and wheelchair racing, and events like the Paralympic Games (which consists of 20 summer and five winter contests), are helping to dissolve the differences between people who have full use of their bodies and people who don’t, but have found ways to compensate. One of the highest-profile athletes to blur the distinction is Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee who used carbon-fiber prosthetics to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, targeted reinnervation, a surgery that connects an artificial limb to the person’s nervous system, has been making headway since electrician and double-amputee Jesse Sullivan became the first patient to undergo the procedure in 2001.
While improvements in materials science, electronics, and surgical techniques have helped propel these developments, the wheelchair hasn’t received much attention since it was developed about 2,500 years ago. The dimensions, wheel diameters, and materials have changed, but the basic design has stayed pretty constant. Useful for providing a lot of mobility for a person who otherwise can’t get around, the wheelchair has its limitations. It does well on flat, hard surfaces, but as inclines get steeper and surfaces get softer, a wheelchair gets increasingly difficult to use. Imagine using one on a hilly trail after a rainstorm.
When Jeff Swenson was paralyzed as a result of a car accident years ago, his father, Tim Swenson, wondered if he could build a better mobility chair. The elder Swenson, who owned power-sports dealership Action Sports at that time, had spent most of his life around all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles. His sons had grown up loving the outdoors, often riding ATVs and snowmobiles. Unsatisfied with the mobility offered by a standard wheelchair, Swenson thought about a way to let Jeff enjoy some of the freedom he had lost.
A roll-your-sleeves-and-get-things-done type of guy, Swenson had always lent a hand in the dealership’s service department, so he had developed a mechanic’s understanding of how machines work. Who better to come up with a new concept in outdoor mobility?
Swenson dreamed up a design that has two tracks rather than four wheels. Using standard wheelchair components for the propulsion and control systems, and relying on his decades of experience around sport vehicles, Swenson got to work. He didn’t have a lot of fabricating experience, but this wasn’t much of an obstacle. With his background, he knew it was just mainly a matter of learning to use some machines.
“I’ve always been a tool guy,”
Swenson said. “You can’t do a good job unless you have good tools.”
Making the first chair took a bit of time, about a month, but no matter. The results were an extremely capable chair and a newly enabled—and thrilled—son.
Swenson didn’t know whether he was going to build more chairs.
“Initially I decided to build just one,” said Swenson, who had sold his motorsports dealership when he embarked on this project. “I thought, if we get some interest, we’ll build a few more.”
The first Action Trackchair™ generated some interest—actually quite a bit of interest—so more chairs followed. As Swenson delved deeper into his customers’ needs, he realized that just getting around wasn’t enough for most people who use wheelchairs. Mobility is one thing; activity is something else altogether. Swenson began adding accessories. Borrowing ideas from other outdoor vehicles, Swenson added a fishing-rod holder, gun mount, and a headlight. Other options are a headrest, gun scabbard, umbrella holder, generator mount, utility box, and utility tray.
“Next we’re going to add a workbench to the front of the chair,” Swenson said. “One idea leads to the next.”
Eventually Swenson realized that his chairs might help people get back to work too. The big problem concerned the sitting position.
“When you’re in a wheelchair, it’s hard to get close to your work,” Swenson said. “Your legs are always in front of you, so they’re in the way.” A chair that would lift the user to a standing position would be a big improvement. Swenson’s second design, the Action Trackstander, is intended to get people back to hobbies or jobs that are best done from a standing position.
“People use the stander to play golf, do yard work, do home repairs, and one of our customers even did a layup while playing basketball,” Swenson said. “One young man has a Camaro®, and with a regular chair, he wasn’t able to see the engine. With a stander, he can get up higher and closer and get right up to the engine. This is a big deal.”
Because Swenson didn’t know how many chairs he would produce, he started Action with just a small assortment of basic shop tools—a grinder, a used band saw, a second-hand milling machine, a manual tube bender, and so on. In a small operation with just a couple of products, it’s easy to see a bottleneck when one develops, and in Action’s case, a bottleneck developed before the material even got to the shop floor. The company had plenty of raw material in its inventory, but it’s cut-to-length process was too slow to keep up with the fabricators.
The company needed a machine for making fast, square, repeatable cuts in its main material, 1-in. square tubing. After investigating a few possibilities, Swenson replaced Action’s old band saw with a cold saw, model CS-315EU from Baileigh Industrial. A manual saw, it is capable of miter cuts up to 45 degrees (left or right) and handles square tube up to 3.2 by 3.2 in. and rounds up to 4 in. diameter. The drive system, a 2.5-horsepower motor and direct-drive gearbox, runs the blade at a maximum speed of 52 RPM. The result is a 4-to-1 productivity improvement, according to Swenson. This has been a big help, considering that demand for the company’s chairs grew from about 125 in 2011 to 300 in 2012.
Managing the company’s growth is important to Swenson, who is more interested in helping people than merely selling chairs. “Everyone has a story, and we know a lot of the stories,” he said. He displays many photos of his customers in his shop and knows quite a bit about their lives, their interests, and their hobbies. Although the company is growing, Swenson is steadfast in his belief that close customer contact is a key ingredient in developing new options and enabling more people to do as much as they can.
“We don’t just sell chairs,” he said. “We try to learn about each customer and understand their needs.”
Knowing that the cut-to-length operation can keep up with the fabricators is one less thing to worry about, and it lets Swenson keep his focus on his customers’ ambitions.