By Eric Peterson | Apr 23, 2020
Salt Lake City, Utah
Product development and engineering services
Salt Lake City
Employees: 7 (plus 3 contractors)
Industries: Supply Chain
Products: Product development, engineering, and branding
The founders -- Howells, Jon Hart, and Chris Witham -- worked together at Soundtube, a Park City-based speaker manufacturer, before going out on their own with Swarm.
"I was the first one out," says Howells, a graphic designer. "We started this as a side project"
Hart, an engineer, and Witham, an industrial designer, rounded out the trio of "all of the parts of an R&D department," says Howells. "That's what we call ourselves: an outsourced R&D department."
In 2011, they got an office. "It got real," says Howells. "We've bootstrapped everything, we haven't gone into debt, and we've slowly built our clientele through our network over time."
The company's capabilities have also expanded in the past decade, he adds. "We provide all aspects of R&D from the concept phase all the way through manufacturing. We have over 15 years of manufacturing experience."
Projects have included baby products, firearms, medical devices, and a number of audio components. "We do all the engineering in-house and we do all of the industrial design," says Howells. "What makes us unique is our engineers are a little bit designer-y and our designers are a little bit engineer-y. I think we fuse that really well. We're constantly going back and forth, always keeping the end user in mind. Any compromise we have goes through that lens."
The work in audio has led to a push into patented products: the Sky Hook speaker clamp that has been licensed to Klipsch. Howells says the product allows Swarm to generate "passive income" while continuing to focus on consulting work.
"The only way to scale with services is just to get more people, but that's just more overhead," he says. "How can we balance that and keep our crew kind of small but still fund everything we want to work on?"
Swarm works with a network of contract manufacturers specializing in plastic and metal fabrication. Most are based in China, but some -- like Xtreme Machine in Logan -- are local. "If we can build it here, we will try to do that," says Howells. "It's all about budget."
Prototyping is in Swarm's wheelhouse, he adds. The company's 4,000-square-foot facility in Salt Lake is equipped with a CNC router, manual mill, laser cutter, welding rig, two 3D printers, and other tools. "It's just enough stuff to get in trouble."
The open-minded attitude carries over to their client base. "We're crazy enough to say, 'We can do that,' to almost anything," says Howells, spotlighting three projects: a cutting-edge dogsled, MedLite ID, and SkiQuicky.
With a durable carbon-fiber frame, an innovative steering system, and a built-in jet boiler to cook meat for the dogs, Swarm hit the bullseye, says Howells. Young passed away before he could enter it in the Iditarod, but other team members used it in several events. "All of the mushers really liked it," says Howells. "It was definitely a Cadillac."
MedLite ID allows for better identification of IV tubes at healthcare facilities, as injecting drugs into the wrong tube is the ninth-leading cause of death at hospitals. "This clips onto the IV line, you press it, and it flashes," says Howells.
Starting with a basic CAD file, Swarm redesigned the product with manufacturability -- and price -- in mind. "It was about managing client expectations, the actual reality, and what we could physically do," says Howells. "We actually got to a point where we've got working devices about double what they wanted, but we achieved it."
SkiQuicky was conceived as the "Redbox of ski waxing": a credit card-operated, touch-free kiosk that waxes skis for about $20. The machine Swarm built in 2017 was demoed at Brighton a few years ago, and its investors are currently pursuing investment for a broader launch.
"We nailed it," says Howells. We figured out how to wax a ski, move the brakes out of the way, and the public just has to set them in the device."
The strategy has resulted in a sustainable business. "We've had steady growth over the years," says Howells. "We've got several big projects just coming out."
Challenges: Post-pandemic planning. "Making sure we keep clients happy," says Howells. "We need to be working on the next thing, so that when the economy goes, we're there ready to crank."
Opportunities: More proprietary products like the Sky Hook. "We're working on licensing projects," says Howells. "We've got a bunch of those."
"I think there's going to be sectors that are going to want to innovate" in the wake of COVID-19, he adds, pointing to healthcare first and foremost. "We need to keep our eyes out for those sectors that are being hit hard but also need some innovative thinking."
Needs: "We always like to get new tools," says Howells. At the top of the list: "a better CNC machine." He also points to a need to hire "a few people" in the post-pandemic future.