Manufacturing Muscle : The U.S. Boom in Fitness Equipment

By Mary Ethridge

Today’s Machining World Archives March 2008 Volume 04 Issue 03

Machining Muscle

Second to man’s search for the meaning of the universe may just be our quest for a beautiful body in which to navigate it. At least one would think so from hearing the siren song of infomercials promising mastery of every imaginable body part for fve easy payments of $29.99. Stroll the strip malls and city streets of America and take note of the workout centers popping up as quickly as extra pounds over the holidays. The number of fitness gyms, led by specialty chains such as Curves International, increased by about fve percent in 2006, the latest industry statistics show. Their memberships rose nearly 34 percent from 2001-2006 to nearly 43 million.

While the success rate for members trying to shape up might vary widely, the literal nuts and bolts of the fitness movement – its equipment manufacturers and their suppliers – are already well conditioned and in the race.

“The growth of the fitness industry has been a big plus for the companies that make fitness gear as well as the companies that supply the necessary parts for these machines. As more and more Americans put fitness and exercise at the center of their lives, the industry will continue to blossom on all levels,” said Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, a trade group based in Jupiter, Fla. “In short, it’s definitely a good time to be in the fitness equipment business.”

During the 1990s, industry growth was somewhat fat as companies reckoned with the overbuilding of the 1980s, May said. But as greater numbers of Baby Boomers armed themselves against aging by embracing exercise, the industry picked up again after the turn of the millennium.

Suppliers: Along For A Fast Ride
May is paid to sound optimistic, but he’s right on this one. Consider that all these new health clubs must be equipped with machines alluring enough to convince us to shed our money and street clothes. The old gyms must keep pace or die, he said. And the home exerciser, perhaps having been exposed to commercial equipment in gyms at work or school, is looking for more and more for comparable gear for the workout room, industry trends show.

Indeed, sales of U.S. fitness equipment manufacturers reached about $4.7 billion in 2006, experts say, a nearly 12 percent rise from 2004. The market is closer to $7 billion when U.S. parts suppliers are considered. And there are many. Even a simple treadmill has dozens of parts, ranging from electronics and rollers to blow-molded cup holders and extruded aluminum frames. No manufacturer does it all.

“Oh, we’ve studied it all. For instance, we learned just enough about injection molding to know we didn’t want to get into it,” said Jon Williams, a product development engineer at Concept2 Inc., a rowing machine company based in Morrisville, Vermont. “We depend on someone else for that.”

As a rule, companies consider supplier names proprietary information, but it’s easy enough to see fitness equipment manufacturers don’t go it alone. As the pace of demand for equipment – with an emphasis on the new and sophisticated – increases, companies are seeking suppliers who can deliver high quality on time and on budget with a minimum of handholding, said Greg Hebson, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the Staci Corp., a Florida-based company with a manufacturing network dedicated primarily to the fitness business. Fast turnaround is essential since the pace of product innovation has reached unprecedented levels.

“We’re seeing the kind of volumes that signal a nice, vertical market for us that is most definitely growing,” said Hebson.

Exercise equipment awaiting assembly at Star Trac.

Jiggle Belts to Juggernaut
Unfortunately, it’s not vertically that most of us seem to be growing. We may be a nation obsessed with fitness, but we’re also the fattest population on the planet. There’s a simple reason for that disconnect; exercise is work. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t need anything to entice us beyond health benefits.

Those of a certain vintage may remember the I Love Lucy episode when Ethel and Lucy wanted to get in shape. They went to a gym where they had a choice of a jiggle belt or a sweat box. Fifty years later, the choices are staggering. Product quality ranges from downright dangerous to luxurious and loaded. Do you want to play video games while you work out? You can do that. Or read, watch TV or DVDs, listen to your iPod, control your workout, monitor your vitals.

Two decades ago, the product turnover in a commercial gym was about 10 years. Now it’s more like three to four, experts say.

“Maybe you won’t see much change at a gym from one year to the next, but over five years, it’s amazing,” said May.

Those who will be successful are manufacturers of high quality, user-friendly equipment that makes exercise less of a chore, he said. Fitness equipment consumers are savvier these days. They’ve been trained to expect frequent changes and improvements from the industry. They are technology minded and perhaps have been burned before by buying bargain-basement equipment.

Sometimes, that’s literally true. A heavily advertised abdominal belt that claimed to work muscles by stimulating them with electric currents was banned from shelves a few years ago after the U.S. government found it was burning the skin of users to the blistering point, among other fairly horrifying things.

So, let the buyer beware in more ways than one. And be thankful people such as John Cook have got your back – and abs, legs and biceps.

Rapid Pace Of Change
Cook is director of industrial design at Star Trac, a commercial grade fitness equipment manufacturer in Irvine, California. He recently left BMW Designworks- USA, whose clients have ranged from John Deere to Mary Kay cosmetics, to work full time with Star Trac because he wanted to focus on fitness.

“At the end of the day, if I can say I encouraged some-one to exercise, to make them healthier, I feel great,” he said. “I know that sounds corny, but I have to say that’s the overall feeling around here.”Star Trac introduced a couple of new products annually as recently as five years ago. Now, they launch 50 to 60 in a year. Star Trac says its year-over-year sales have been increasing at 25 to 30 percent. Their treadmills run as high as $7,000, so they aren’t for the bargain minded.

As a private company, they don’t routinely release sales numbers, but they are said to be among the fastest growing fitness equipment companies in the country. Other front-running manufacturers trading in the high end include Vermont-based Concept2, credited with bringing rowing machines from boathouse to basement, giants ICON Fitness & Health (NordicTrack, Pro-Form), Nautilus Inc., Precor, and Tunturi of Finland, which started as a bicycle repair business in 1922 and now makes a broad range of high-end equipment.

Checking the control panel at Star Trec before assembly.

Star Trac Tough
All of Star Trac’s products are made to withstand the demands of the commercial market, which currently makes up 95 percent of its business. Some low-priced treadmills out there are designed to run about 100 hours; Star Trac’s are made to run 10,000, according to the company.

“It’s like designing a rental car. Everyone who uses it probably abuses it,” said Cook. “These things are always on and always in use. You have to have a piece of equipment to withstand that.” Star Trac begins its creative process by viewing potential customers in five exercise categories ranging from “not now and not ever” to “it’s an ingrained habit,” according to Terry Woods, director of commercial marketing for the company.

“The challenge is to move people along the spectrum. How should we do that? If people are at least thinking about exercise, we’ve got a chance with them,” said Woods.

Star Trac launches actual product development by gathering a team of designers and engineers together. Keeping the five types in mind and wielding some data from consumer and trend studies, they go to work imagining the new and better workout machine.

Engineer Mark Chiles, Star Trac’s cardio platforms manager, says merging art and science is a bit like making sausage – better not to see it done.

“Engineers and artists don’t always speak the same language. There’s a lot of back and forth. There’s some fighting sometimes,” he said.

Cook agreed.

“It’s almost like a game of Pictionary with people drawing and waving their hands all around. They’re passionate,” he said. “There are crazy, funny ideas like putting rotating knives in the back of a treadmill to keep people motivated, but it leads to creative thinking.”

The designers study color and material trends. Cook recently attended a major home furnishings show in Milan, Italy. They also study other products, such as garden tools, to learn what manufacturing methods such as hydro forming can do.

Baby Boomers Stretch, Shape Supply
A recent Star Trac success story involves the Baby Boomer market, which is by far the fastest growing demographic for health clubs and home fitness machines, according to industry statistics. The number of health club members 55 and over increased 387 percent from 1987 to 2007 to nearly 8 million.

Recumbent stationary bikes, said to be easier on aging backs and joints, are popular among Baby Boomers.

So, Star Trac went to clubs and watched hundreds of people get on and off the bikes. (They’re the sort of bikes that allow the user to recline a bit). They noticed people sometimes struggled to step over the bar to get on the machine. It was simply inconvenient for some, but a literal barrier for others.

“So, we split it. It’s open. Now, you can just walk right through ours and get on,” Cook said. Star Trac researchers also noted that more than 60 percent of people who rode recumbent bikes read books while using them, even when other entertainment options were available. In response, they created an adjustable reading station which extends toward the user and includes page clips. Armrests alleviate tension in the shoulders and allow for a more relaxed posture. There are multiple cup and accessory holders, and several places to put reading material.

“It’s all about providing creature comforts,” said Cook. “If you can get them to sit down and move their legs for 10 minutes, that’s great.”

Mark Chiles’ job is to keep Cook’s artists in the zone of the possible.

“Sometimes they go way out there and add on and add on,” said Chiles. “Manufacturability, obviously, is essential.”

A mechanical engineer, Chiles has five other engineers working with him to take a concept and turn it into a prototype. Star Trac has a full machine shop a step away from the engineering department. It is equipped with a Trak DPM-SX5 CNC bed mill and a Trak TRL 1840SX CNC lathe dedicated to making prototypes. The engineering shop also has a few older mills and lathes, along with all the other metalworking and welding equipment necessary to make complete prototypes of new fitness equipment. All of the company’s engineers have extensive machining and fabrication skills, he said.

“We can CAD or shop a prototype,” said Chiles. “We’re a prototype-intensive company.”

Once a product’s design is finalized, Chiles said, about 30 or 40 are produced and put in filed test clubs for 30 days with eight hours of continuous use.

“If we get a failure, we set the clock back and start again,” he said.

(The company also has an on-site test center employees call the “torture chamber” where machines are robotically put through their paces at extreme levels.)

View of Star Trec’s treadmill monitor. Readout and TV make the laps go easier.

U.S. Versus Offshore Suppliers
Chiles said Star Trac buys major subcomponents such as AC motors, running belts, treadmill decks, aluminum extrusions, wiring harnesses, keypads, motor controllers and display electronics from U.S. sources. The company also uses a number of local metal forming suppliers for some of the smaller parts in their assemblies and local distributors for bearings and fasteners.

Star Trac buys some parts off shore – usually low-tech, fabricated metal parts, or commodity items such as plastic wheels, connectors and some hardware items, Chiles said.

“Obviously, there are price pressures in our industry. However, we have to make certain everything we use meets our standards,” Chiles said.

Most of Star Trac’s heavy manufacturing is done by partners in Taiwan, Italy, and Mexico or at the company’s production facility in Irvine.

The Irvine headquarters has research and development laboratories (including the torture chamber), and administrative offices. A 55,000 square foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant has continuous-flow assembly lines, as well as electronic assembly, machine and weld shops.

Star Trac recently bought a gantry mill that in two minutes machines eight aluminum extrusions that form the main chassis of a treadmill. It replaces a two punch press operation and allows more flexibility in their manufacturing, Chiles said. The facility has room for a 300 percent increase in production, if necessary,

Out Of Order, Out Of Business
Star Trac’s Woods and Williams of Concept2 stress that sales, service, and generous warranties are key to retaining customers in the long run.

May said the point can’t be emphasized enough.“Nothing does more to damage a club’s reputation than to have out-of-order signs on its equipment. Not only is it inconvenient for members, it sends a general message of poor quality,” said May.

Somewhat surprisingly in these days of Everyday Low Prices, the cost of machines is becoming less of a consideration among health clubs and even consumers of home equipment.

“You want [equipment] to be easy to use, appealing and durable, and then probably comes price on the list,” May said.

He added that companies such as Star Trac and Concept2 have enormous power to seize an even bigger piece of the growing global and U.S. markets, as quality rises on the list of selling points.

“America has some of the highest quality products out there in our industry. American manufacturers have much value in the eyes of the global consumer,” said May.

What’s That Smell?
In a poem entitled “Adam’s Curse” by Irish writer W.B. Yeats, he muses, “It’s certain there is no fine things since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring.” Until someone comes up with a machine that will truly make us ft while sitting on the couch, plus provide the mental and emotional benefits of exercise, we’re going to have to sweat.

Kind of stinks, doesn’t it? For most of us, maybe. But to the U.S. fitness industry, it’s the sweet scent of success.

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