The treadmill revisited: faster, stronger, and stranger than you expected
When most of us think of a treadmill, we envision a dusty machine in the corner of the basement, which we bought in our brief enthusiasm for exercise, and then promptly forgot or adamantly avoided. For those of us who make it to the gym, even the professional industry treadmills, some of the most used machines on the market, require extensive repair within the first one to two years of their lifetime.
When Martha and Mark White founded TuffTread in 1999, they asked themselves: “How can we make a durable treadmill which can be expected to last for years to come?” This simple question has exploded the traditional boundaries of the treadmill industry and led the couple into territory they would have never imagined only 15 years ago.
So, if the thought of a treadmill makes you feel tired or bored, sit back and prepare to think again.
Finding the right match
When the founders of TuffTread decided to make a new kind of treadmill, they began researching conveyors used for heavy industrial loads, an industry which did not just prefer, but required indestructibility. With this model of extreme endurance, customer requests rolled in and suddenly they were no longer just dealing with traditional gym-like treadmills. The Chinese Olympic team wanted to know if TuffTread could supply a treadmill which could run 50 km/h for high-speed athletic training. The Navy needed a machine which could facilitate four soldiers at a time for their Warrior Performance Lab, a climate chamber which had temperatures ranging from -29° to 60° C. Amusement parks, movie studios, animal trainers: each time Martha and Mark answered the phone, they were once again surprised by the unusual requests, each client searching for a custom machine which could be as robust as it was reliable.
At first it was not easy for TuffTread to find a belt supplier to match their unique market. They needed a provider who could adapt quickly and co-collaborate to find creative solutions. After having tried two different belt suppliers, one which could not provide a sufficiently durable product, and the other who could not keep up with the varying demand, TuffTread tried Habasit.
“It is all you could want from a customer service standpoint,” explains Mark. “It isn’t just that Habasit has a really good product, but it`s that the support is there. That has changed everything.”
The critical factor for custom applications
The more unusual the requests become, the more Martha and Mark realize each critical aspect of the belt. From grooves to patterns to backings to surface treatments, every detail makes a difference. Whether finding a material which can track at high speeds or selecting a surface which will not soften under extreme temperatures, Habasit works closely with TuffTread to construct ideal custom applications.
“When it comes to high speed training, the athlete is going from 0 to 40 km/h in a split second,” explains Mark. “The belt has to track from going super-fast with no load at all to having a 110-kg athlete pounding on the thing. If there is the slightest hesitation, or if the athlete`s foot slides at all when it touches the belt, this can affect his or her muscles and the training simply won`t work.”
From Hollywood to cheetahs
Matching such extreme precision with speed and strength is the ongoing task of TuffTread. Boston Dynamics, a high-end engineering firm, approached Martha and Mark with the request for a treadmill to test robots. In an effort to simulate the speed of a wild cheetah, engineers at the firm had created a robot which would race across the surface of the belt, scuffing the material with its mechanical paws while also leaking hydraulic fluid onto the equipment. The traction and surface coating of the belt was essential so that the robot did not slip. With a complex electronic interface, the machine had to be able to accelerate from 0 to 96 km/h in 2.8 seconds while also having the durability to withstand tough abrasion.
When not racing cheetahs, TuffTread has often been recruited for the entertainment industry. The graphics department of Marvel Comics Studio requested a machine which was 3 m wide and 10 m long so that actors could run as a group in a computerized environment which made it look like the simulated action was happening right around them. With a machine of such a large size, it was a challenge to be able to facilitate rapid acceleration and grade changes, but TuffTread turned to Habasit and was able to acquire all the necessary parts within a very short time.
“When the entertainment industry decides they are going to do something, you have no lead time,” Mark explains, “so it all boils down to who can get to them first.”
Media Monks, the largest creative digital production company in the world, came to TuffTread for the construction of customized treadmills which would be part of an avatar video game. The ‘Nike Game of Go’ appeared at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California during a Nike event, where participants could test their own speed and strength while running on a treadmill with an on-screen avatar who responded to their every move.
“We ordered many parts for this project and of all suppliers, Habasit was the first one to deliver, even though it was for three large belts which were difficult to build,” Mark says. “They knew how important it was to us.”
A story that outgrows the page
One blog article is not enough to cover all the stories that TuffTread has to tell of the unexpected places where Habasit belts appear. A full dogsled team sprints across a 19-meter-long belt, Navy soldiers run over 80,000 km a year on treadmills installed on US aircraft carriers, a machine races at 327 km/h in a research project for Hyperloop, and paralyzed children regain strength on specialized training belts.
“It is surprising how different our belts are one to the next, and Habasit supplies them all,” Mark says. “That is where Habasit has been amazing. They make sure we get the specifications we need, and as you can see, our specifications change a lot, custom job to custom job.”