Betting in large part on the booming biotech sector, engineering design firm InForm Product Development will spend $2.8 million to dramatically expand its footprint in Sun Prairie and nearly double its workforce, enabling new services including niche manufacturing for customers in the bioscience and lab equipment fields.
Founded in 1995, InForm functions mainly as a product design consulting firm. It helps other companies take their ideas and turn them into cost-efficient, functional products for sale, using staff expertise in industrial design, which works out the styling, color and ergonomics of a product, or how it looks and feels; mechanical and electrical engineering, to make it work on paper; and prototyping, to make it work for real.
“We work on everything from baby teethers to mining equipment, and on items produced in quantities of one to millions,” vice president/co-owner Ed Raleigh said. “At any one time, we could have 40 active projects in here.”
Born and raised in Prentice in north-central Wisconsin, Raleigh, 48, bucked a long family history in the logging industry to become a mechanical engineer, earning degrees from UW-Platteville and the University of Florida.
He designed fighter jet engines for the government — the F-15, F-16 and F-22 Raptor — while working for Pratt & Whitney in West Palm Beach, Florida, for about five years in his first job out of college, before opening InForm in Sun Prairie with 50/50 business partner, Mark Gilbertson, who is company president.
Compared to focusing solely on jet engines, Raleigh liked the open-ended challenge of working at a product design firm, where the key task revolves around using the universal laws of physics to make something — almost anything, really, depending on a client’s needs — click.
“We figure out how to manufacture things and then we design them for people,” said Raleigh, whose own early designs for the company included the Gerber safety fork, a utensil with a “big grippy handle” for little hands on one end and a mix of two rounded and two recessed tine tips on the other — to let a toddler poke and pick up a piece of hot dog, for instance, but not sharply jab himself in the gums or cheek if he misses his mouth on delivery.
Raleigh came up with the design when Gerber, now owned by baby products company NUK, asked if he could develop a “safe stabbing device,” he recalled. Many other product puzzles have followed, offering welcome challenges for those with a problem-solving personality.
“The people that work here get a lot of experience in a hurry,” Raleigh said. “And if you’re really into design and development, then this is a great place to work.”
Also, a busy place.
Between 2009 and 2012, InForm gross revenues increased 36 percent to $3.65 million , which put it among the 5,000 fastest-growing independent private companies in the nation, according to annual rankings by Inc. magazine. Revenues hit $3.88 million last year.
“Part of it is there’s a lot of biosciences and life sciences companies and start-ups here in Madison,” Raleigh said about the increased demand. “Some very smart people are developing all these new technologies, but they don’t know a whole lot about engineering and manufacturing, any more than I know anything about pharma or a lot of what they’re doing. But together we make a great team.”
But elbow room at the company’s Sun Prairie Business Park headquarters at 700 Wilburn Road, where InForm has been since 2000, is increasingly hard to find.
“We simply need more space for building and testing prototypes,” said Raleigh, outlining plans to reorganize workflow and the path of outside visitors through the facility more efficiently as well.
“One of the problems is when I bring prospective customers in and give them a tour of the shop, I have to walk them right through the engineering department and through the industrial design department, and it’s disruptive. And we try to keep things under wraps, because we’re often dealing with confidential (new product) information.”
With a groundbreaking set for Wednesday, a new building about a mile away in the park, at 1869 Haynes Drive, will replace the company’s existing facility and triple its square footage — from about 8,900 to 28,400 — when it opens in early May, with room onsite for more growth.
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Two dozen skilled jobs, to be created over eight years, will nearly double the company’s workforce, Raleigh said, including a new in-house electrical engineering team. The company mostly outsources that work now.
And several new pieces of equipment, at a cost of around $500,000, Raleigh said, will help fill the new building, including computer-controlled machining tools for advanced part-making and new kinds of rapid prototyping systems — also known as 3-D printing.
More than 2,500 products
InForm makes and tests prototypes for products mainly in the consumer, industrial, military and medical sectors. The company boasts more than 250 U.S. clients, plus a handful in Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic — for which Inform designed napkin dispensers, dairy equipment and water meters, respectively.
Raleigh said there was no standard blueprint for winning new clients, though the company’s deep portfolio helps.
“We have to make a custom presentation for every customer we plan to engage and simply find products that we’ve done that are similar in nature to what they are doing,” Raleigh said. “Since we’ve done over 2,500 projects in the last 19 years, there is almost always something similar in our past to draw on.”
One new medical device InForm helped develop over the past year involves an attachment for asthma inhalers that monitors when and where they’re used. The device for Madison early-stage company Propeller Health uses sensors, mobile apps and analytics software to deliver the information on asthma patients to doctors, allowing for better monitoring of symptoms and treatment.
Greg Tracy, Propeller Health’s chief technology officer, credited InForm’s creativity and design expertise with helping get the inhaler product to market quicker. InForm’s understanding of how the inhaler would be used in the real world and of Propeller’s goals for how it should work for users were key to that, Tracy added.
“Our sensors for inhaled medications have a very active and demanding life — inside back pockets and backpacks, purses and briefcases — used by everyone from toddlers to great grandparents,” he said. “Their design can’t get in the way of someone using their medication when they need it most. It was critical to work with a team that understood Propeller’s core design principles to achieve those goals — simple, small and passive.”
Filling a niche
As with most products Inform designs, when it’s time to sell the inhaler device, Propeller Health will take the prototype to a manufacturer. InForm isn’t scaled for mass production, but Raleigh says the company hopes to do some low-volume manufacturing for certain clients using some of the added space in the new building.
The company already builds dozens of prototypes for certain products, as all the kinks get worked out, Raleigh said. Short-run manufacturing would be essentially the same thing, he said, for clients that may sell only 100 to around 500 of their highly complex, expensive devices per year — for example, certain pieces of lab equipment or scientific devices used only by universities.
And because InForm staff will have designed the products, too, they’ll be better able to build them, Raleigh said.
“We seem to have found a niche for a need that’s not being met by typical manufacturers,” he said. “Some of the new biotechnology companies, they might produce 100 products a year. It’s kind of a no-man’s land — not enough (volume) to be profitable for most manufacturers, but too much for most design firms.”
Tom Still, director of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said low-volume manufacturing was a needed service for biotech companies in the state and across the country.
“For smaller companies especially, and those that have a niche product, they may not go right into a market and make 10,000 from the start,” Still said. “So finding a contract manufacturer (for that smaller volume), and one who also was there with you from Day 1 on the design side, I think would be extremely valuable for a lot of the companies around here. It’s a good fit.”