Coordinating equipment service, trying to eliminate downtime and figuring out what pieces need replacing are tasks that are the bane of any fitness club, especially larger ones that may have thousands of equipment pieces to manage.
Now, Precor has been testing a wireless monitoring system called InSite that will allow a club from a central location to know what equipment needs repair, a regular service, or has suddenly gone down or is malfunctioning. In addition, it will monitor usage and allow a club to plan equipment buys to replace, upgrade or expand without the guesswork, eyeball, doodle, finger-cross and deep breath that have mostly been the standard in the industry until now.
"This is valuable because for so long we've gone on gut feelings," said Mike Feeney, vice president of purchasing and facilities for 24 Hour Fitness in the United States, Germany and Asia. "You can now see what people are doing, what products they're on, if it needs maintenance, and how you should then purchase for a new location."
For a large club chain like Feeney's, having oversight wirelessly from a central location is a blessing, he says -- with 25,000 pieces of cardio equipment in 320 U.S. clubs, including 6,500 treadmills alone.
For now, Precor is piloting the system at 24 Hour, Gold's Gym and Bally Total Fitness, with those clubs slowly expanding its use this year from pilot locations throughout their chains. A rollout on a larger scale to other clubs won't happen before the end of the year or early 2004, SNEWS was told.
"Our feeling is, we need to do more than just product to help our customers be successful," Precor President Paul Byrne said. "With this, we can show down to the minute what is being used, when.
"The result is better, faster data that managers can apply to make smarter decisions," Byrne said.
More than anything else, this is about being better able to schedule service, both preventive as well as for sudden malfunctions, Byrne said. Not only can clubs keep equipment up and running better, but they can also tell what is wrong and what part may be needed before calling a repair person, simply by the InSite system reading error codes and monitoring amount of use. All of this can keep clubs smiling, equipment humming, and its members even happier.
"You got to cut out the down time," Feeney said. "Being a 24-hour club, a day to me is like two to three days for somebody else.
"I've talked about this for years with a number of manufacturers," he said. "It's still going to take some time to be complete. It'll have its ups and downs, but no one else is doing it, and you have to roll with it to get to the end result."
The system, which Precor has been developing informally for nearly two years, has been used in the company's own fitness center for nearly a year. Using a wireless connection, it works by reading error codes regularly issued by equipment, as well as logging usage. Until now, club personnel have had to punch buttons on equipment one-by-one to read codes or check usage. The system works using a port that is becoming standard on equipment for hooking it to screens, TVs or other devices. That means any brand can be plugged into the system as long as the company allows its error codes and other codes to be read. Precor isn't disclosing the specifics of the technology or how it functions.
"The data is there," Feeney said, "and the equipment is all collecting it internally. We just have to draw it out.
"My long-term goal," he said, "would be that the system works with every piece of cardio so I can compare manufacturer to manufacturer, too."
SNEWS View: With the type of electronics in exercise equipment, it seems like a no-brainer to be able to monitor it and let the equipment itself tell you when it needs a little loving care, a look-see, service check or a new part -- like a more advanced version of your car's dashboard light going on. Like getting your car's oil changed regularly and on schedule, getting a machine checked regularly can help a club maintain its investment. In addition, walking past the cardio room a few times a day and counting equipment use isn't a great use of time for personnel -- nor is it a very accurate way to figure out what is being used, how much, how hard or when. Again, this system should allow a club to better plan logical equipment buys or upgrades, as well as perhaps rotate equipment to different locations -- like rotating your car's tires for more even use!
But it can go further than that: The club can figure out not only where members prefer to workout (near the window, near the TV, farther from the front door, etc.), as well as which brands they prefer. For example, if one brand is being used a lot but another brand in another area is not, it'd be pretty clear it's the brand, not the location, if the club switches them, but the same pattern emerges. Although the clubs will own all the information, the manufacturers themselves could benefit by knowing which pieces, what features and what programs, for example, are most popular, and allow them to plan better product development. That's certainly not where the system is now, nor where it is intended to be, but with information being the commodity of the future, one wonders certainly where this can go. Forget "Big Brother Watching" scenarios, this is all about better products to fit a consumer's needs -- and that applies down the road not only to home equipment, but also allowing the home user to monitor his or her equipment parts and service needs better. This is one step toward the fitness industry advancing into the future and better using technology.