Growth and a search for greater production efficiency has led a Kennewick company to move to Pasco.
TiSport, known for its TiLite manual wheelchairs made of titanium and aircraft-grade aluminum, has bought the former Food Pavilion on Court Street near Highway 395.
The company's production facilities have been scattered in four buildings at the Port of Kennewick's Oak Street Industrial Park, said David Lippes, founding chairman and chief executive officer of the company, which has been in business for more than 12 years.
TiSport has outgrown its current facilities, which total about 40,000 square feet, he said. Over the years, the number of company employees has increased from 16 to 136 and sales have expanded to 35 countries including South Africa and Australia.
The new Pasco location, which is being remodeled, will have about 70,000 square feet of built up area spread on seven acres. Operations are scheduled to shift to the new site at the end of October.
The $7 million project will help the company focus on improving its signature product and plan for future growth, Lippes said. "We'll redesign our production line to be more linear."
Other priorities include increasing international sales and developing super-light wheelchairs for kids, he said. The company makes about 10,000 units a year.
The move will help the company streamline its production process, said Gary White, director of business retention and expansion for the Tri-City Development Council.
"They have a great product and great people. They are a real asset to the community," he said.
TiSport offers quality manufacturing, niche marketing and has managed to find the export market, White said. "(TiSport) understands all the pieces and makes it work," he said.
TiLite competes with Invacare Corp. and Quickie for market share, but has carved its own niche. Those companies also manufacture medical equipment, while TiLite is focused purely on wheelchairs.
"We make a better product," Lippes said. He said TiLite chairs are lighter, sturdier and users can easily move them to their cars without assistance.
Richland's Nate Higgins, who is paralyzed and unable to walk, said TiLite chairs are the best available in the market. But he said rehab clinics don't often talk about TiLite.
"You have to ask for it by name," said Higgins, who lost the use of his legs and abdominal and lower back muscles after falling off a roof in 2004.
Each chair is custom-designed for its user to fit like a prosthetic, Lippes said. He said the company also has been able to reduce the weight of a wheelchair from about 36 pounds to 15 pounds.
A lighter wheelchair is easier to push and less strenuous on the shoulders, Lippes said, adding that TiLite always is looking for new ways to make the wheelchairs lighter without sacrificing quality.
TiLite wheelchairs are designed by engineers who use wheelchairs and many company employees also use TiLite chairs, Lippes said. "We listen to ideas everywhere we get them."
Retail price of a TiLite wheelchair is about $5,000, but Higgins said the high price tag is worth it. He earlier used another wheelchair and wasn't happy with it.
The ongoing economic slowdown has affected TiLite, but Lippes said the company is more concerned about poor reimbursement rates from private insurers and government agencies such as Medicare and Medicaid.
He said an old mindset that suggests wheelchair users are less likely than those who use a prosthetic to return to the active work force prevents policy makers from improving the reimbursement policy, and that needs to change.
TiLite helps people with disabilities live independently and with dignity, Lippes said.