Technologies developed to satisfy the requirements of a specific application soon find their way into other non-related applications through vision and innovative thinking. Take, for example, Leonard Rice and William Deacon, both aircraft engineers who saw how the intrinsic lightweight strength and durability of aluminum used in aircraft manufacturing could be used successfully in the design and manufacture of wheelchair lifts for vehicles. “What Rice and Deacon really brought to this industry, when they founded the company in 1970, were their materials. Before Ricon, lightweight, aluminum alloys had not been used in the design and manufacture of wheelchair lifts,” says Stanton Saucier, vice president of engineering and operations for Los Angeles-headquartered Ricon (RIce deaCON) Corporation. “In fact, we continue to produce products today based on Rice and Deacon’s original material innovations.
Ricon grew significantly through the early 1990s, after the ADA (Americans with Disability Act) was passed in 1991. “Public service vehicles are now required to be wheelchair-accessible. Wheelchair lifts used to be almost exclusively installed on an aftermarket basis whereas today, all the major bus OEMs offer wheelchair accessibility as standard equipment,” Saucier says. Although that growth spurt leveled off in the late 1990s, Ricon expects a similar growth spurt from the European and U.K markets. “We are seeing a similar trend there through what’s called ‘government-mandated accessibility,” he continues.
Innovation in Mobility
Ricon provides accessibility solutions to three main market segments: personal mobility, commercial, and transit. “Personal or private mobility products are for individuals buying accessibility aids for either a family member, or for themselves,” Saucier says, adding that this segment accounts for about 25 percent of Ricon’s business. In this case, individuals bring their own vans to a Ricon dealer, for installation of the wheelchair lift.
On the commercial side, Ricon manufactures lifts and ramps for PSVs (public service vehicles) such as hotel shuttles, non-emergency medical transportation or para-transit. “The higher end of our commercial business sort of bridges the gap between commercial and transit. Here we sell a variety of accessibility equipment to large vehicle manufacturers like the Thor Bus Group, DaimlerChrysler and the Bluebird Corporation,” says Saucier. “Clients like these represent our largest commercial accounts.”
“Though we’ve only been seriously in the transit business for the last five or six years, we participated in a project back in the early 90s that put our company on the map as a supplier to the transit industry,” Saucier says. The contract was for wheelchair lifts to be installed in railcars built by Nippon Sharyo for the Northeast Illinois Commuter Rail Corporation (Metra). “Metra bought 178 cars, each requiring two wheelchair lifts. This was the first time we ever participated in a major municipal procurement,” he says. “Today we are working on another order for Metra that consists of 300 cars, which means we will be providing them with 600 wheelchair lifts.”
These large municipal contracts are very significant for the company in terms of demonstrating Ricon’s capabilities and flexibility. “Our first project with Metra exposed us to the many non-material deliverables required for these types of contracts, things like a complete set of engineering drawings that illustrate our lift in the application under all conditions of use, various engineering test and analysis reports required to demonstrate the systems compliance with the authority’s requirements and a very heavy technical publications requirement.” Saucier continues, “For example, Metra’s technical publications requirement for the current project is three volumes, a Running Maintenance Manual, a Heavy Maintenance Manual and an Illustrated Parts Catalogue. Prior to working with Metra, we were never called upon to do these things before.”
Ricon also produces the best selling low floor bus access ramp for heavy transit buses. “These products are used in large metropolitan areas throughout the country. We see our products everyday on the streets of L.A. Since the MTA moved to low floor city buses, we have enjoyed a good relationship with them.”
Ricon employs two principle manufacturing modes to produce its products: serial manufacturing and MTO (manufacturing-to-order). Transit accessibility projects push Ricon’s capability in the area of MTO in that each project requires some amount of
up-front engineering. “We meet these challenges through vertical integration. Since our earliest days in business, we’ve developed two core competencies, hydraulic cylinder production and sheet metal fabrication” Saucier says.
“The serial manufacturing component of our operations really deserves credit for our strategic position in the world today,” Saucier says. “Business as usual won’t do it for us going forward. Our S-Series product is the most popular wheelchair lift design around the world. I’ve seen copycat products at tradeshows all over Europe and the Far East. As our European competitors source components in the former eastern block and our Asian competitors take advantage of low cost manufacturing in their region, competing purely on price is not a sustainable proposition. Our current strategy is to outsource the high volume, repetitive stuff to free up capacity on our more flexible manufacturing assets so that we can offer a high level of value added service to our lucrative, engineered to order, commercial and transit customers.”
Innovation is key to Ricon’s position in the industry. “We are the trendsetters in the industry in terms of being the first to introduce to the market new features and options – and this is a key piece of the value proposition we offer our customers,” Saucier says. “In addition to being the largest producer, we are the low-cost producer as well.”
Ricon’s recent partnership with VMI (Vantage Mobility International) will mean that VMI will market and sell Ricon’s personal mobility products so that Ricon can focus more acutely on its commercial and transit segments. “VMI is a key player in the personal mobility segment,” Saucier says. “This partnership between our companies will give VMI the exclusive distribution right for our personal mobility products.” This partnership will supplement Ricon’s current distribution channel and open up even wider distribution opportunities.
A mutual sales agreement with MBB, a German firm, will mean yet more business for Ricon. “We will help them domestically by producing their truck freight lifts in the U.S., while they will help us sell and support our mobility products in Europe,” Saucier says, hinting at yet other acquisitions currently underway.
“We keep a close watch over the marketplace and endeavor to stay ahead of what our competitors are doing. If we are the ones being copied, we know we are doing it right,” Saucier says, referring back to Ricon’s flagship S-series product, whose popularity is due its very simple, reliable and robust design.
All products in Ricon’s three market segments are also sold internationally. Ricon’s manufacturing facility in Los Angeles totals 225,000 square feet and the company employs approximately 250 people. Ricon also has assets in Manchester, England, where it operates a 40,000-square-foot facility that serves the U.K. and European markets. In 2001, Ricon was the first domestic wheelchair lift manufacturer to receive ISO 9001 certification. Today, the company is the largest manufacturer of its kind in the world, producing more lifts than any other company.
Future vistas look bright for Ricon. “We plan to be the premier supplier to commercial and transit markets worldwide, and we will continue to achieve this through our dedication to innovation and constant effort to employ the best engineering practices, while continually improving and lowering the cost of manufacturing through lean production initiatives,” Saucier says.