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.
When you look at a common wheelchair, you’re looking at a mobility device that probably hasn’t been updated much in 1,500 years or so. Certainly the dimensions have changed, as have the wheel diameters and the materials they are made from, but the basic design has stayed pretty constant. And while a standard wheelchair provides a lot of mobility for a person who otherwise can’t get around, it has its limitations. It does well on flat, hard surfaces, but as inclines get steeper and surfaces get softer—imagine using a wheelchair on a hilly trail after a rainstorm—it gets increasingly difficult to use.
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-up-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 business 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.”
Adding a personal touch is important to Swenson. “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 whether their disability was due to injury or illness, Swenson knows quite a bit about their lives, their interests, and their hobbies.
Maintaining this level of familiarity with his customers is likely to become a challenge in the near future because the company is in the midst of a growth spurt. From the company’s inception early in 2009 to the end of 2011, it sold about 400 chairs, and it stands to sell 300 chairs in 2012 alone. Still, 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.”
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