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Wednesday | 28 November, 2012 | 10:56 am

Access for all

By Gretchen Salois

Wheelchair users have more open road options with a different kind of vehicle

November 2012 - The bells and whistles that appeal to potential car buyers satisfy a variety of preferences, from hands-free voice recognition software to cars that drive or park themselves. However, for consumers who require a wheelchair for mobility, one Texas company is manufacturing custom-made cars to give this demographic more options.

With its inception in Hungary, Community Cars Inc. now based in Pflugerville, Texas, manufactures cars designed for wheelchair users. The company came to fruition in 2010 after Stacy Zoern, an attorney and herself a wheelchair user, discovered the struggling Hungarian car manufacturer and began working toward raising capital to keep it afloat by opening operations in the United States.

In late 2011, the company began its production designing line, says Mark Evard, purchasing agent. Because the design originated in Europe, the hand-welded, hand-fitted, custom-built vehicles required metric-sized materials—a potential problem when manufacturing in the United States. The Kenguru B1 can reach a maximum of 25 miles per hour for 60 miles and takes eight hours to recharge (110/220 volts). It’s a rear-wheel drive vehicle with two 2-kilowatt motors on each side with hand-bar-style steering. 

Community Cars’ Kenguru requires metric-sized tubing for the frame and steering components, using 20 millimeter rounds, 30 millimeter rounds and 20 millimeter by 40 millimeter rectangle bars. In a market where metric-sized metal materials often are scarce, the company found Ohio- and California-based Parker Steel Co. 

“They are one of the few service centers where you can get metric sizes that are readily available,” Evard says. Parker Steel also provides cut-to-length options for customers, cutting down production times as well as providing shipments of smaller-sized orders for companies that don’t need to purchase materials in bulk. 

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Ready to go

The basic frame of the vehicle uses standard-sized tubing, but some of the interior shapes within the body require metric-sized materials. “This vehicle fits like you’re putting your foot into a shoe, except the upper part is the shoe and the bottom part is the foot,” Evard explains. “Metric tubing is our only choice. The fasteners and the frame are shipped around the globe, so we don’t plan on moving away from metric sizes.”

Metric tubing is used for the interior handrails that assist the driver when getting into the car. The steel housing and handlebars also are made from metric sized steel tubing. “If I bought 3⁄4-inch-thick and 1⁄2-inch-thick steel tube, which is just a hair smaller and very similar to the metric sizing, it wouldn’t work,” Evard says. “It doesn’t quite fit and doesn’t allow you to hold dimensions in the car for the shocks—everything is off.”

After speaking to a salesperson at Parker Steel, Community Cars ordered the four part types needed to complete the steering towers in metric sizes. “We had Parker Steel cut parts to exact lengths and ship it to us so that we could get moving,” Evard says. “In cases when an order might take too long to ship by freight, they will have it shipped by FedEx or UPS.

“It benefits us to have them cut it down for us, and they usually do it at no extra charge,” Evard continues. “The mild steel tubing we need varies in thicknesses, ranging from 1 millimeter through 3 millimeters, and they have it all available and in stock whenever we need it.” 

When Community Cars began production, Parker Steel needed to provide materials with quick turnaround. Specifically, it shipped large amounts of rectangular tube, 20 millimeters thick, 40 millimeters wide with 2 millimeter wall thickness. 

“We didn’t foresee needing this size when we first started building the car,” Evard explains. “So we tried using standard-sized tubing at first and found it wouldn’t work.” In two days, Community Cars was able to get the proper metric sizes needed, and production continued because Parker Steel cut and shipped the materials the same day.

Meeting customer needs

Parker Steel offers virtually every kind of metal available, including carbon, aluminum, stainless, copper, brass and titanium, as well as alloys in various shapes, sizes and finishes, including cold-drawn, cold-finished, hot-rolled, cold-rolled turned ground and polished, chrome-plated and galvanized. The company has band saws, a CNC saw for production cutting, plasma cutters and a recently purchased shear for cutting plate. It is also ISO 9001:2008 certified and C-TPAT certified. 

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Parker Steel examined its customer base and realized it needed to reduce lead times for its West Coast customers. “Our customers place an order and need that material very quickly,” says Jerry Hidalgo, president, Parker Steel. “If a customer is close, they can get materials in one to two days; if further away, three to four. That’s just too long for a lot of our customers.” In mid-2011, the company opened its third facility in Fresno, Calif., in addition to its Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, locations. 

By building a physical location closer to the company’s West Coast clientele, Parker Steel offers customers shorter lead times as well as less expensive shipping options. Since its opening, Parker Steel has experienced an increase in customers. “Things don’t change quickly as we have customers that infrequently buy metric materials,” 

Hidalgo says. “But we’re noticing a positive change. We’re able to provide better service to our customers throughout the U.S.” 

Hidalgo attributes Parker Steel’s success to the company philosophy, which is to take care of every customer by meeting or exceeding expectations. “Many companies use this language, but at Parker, our people truly believe it and live that philosophy,” Hidalgo says. “I’m truly proud of our team and their dedication to our customers, which they exhibit on a daily basis.”

Reliable service makes all the difference to a startup company like Community Cars. “So far we’ve built 14 to 15 cars,” Evard says. “We’re a small business, and Parker Steel was very receptive to what we needed when we first got started. 

“They helped us get materials on time and were understanding of our credit situation and have been extremely helpful getting us the tubing we need to get production underway,” he continues. “When I first started in September 2011, this production site was a blank slate. A year later, our car body parts are here, our computer systems are set up and we have everything we need to build a car and continue to get more orders.” MM

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