Good product design and engineering, when cleverly conceived and strategically executed, can be a great enabler. Witness The Access Strength™, a fitness/rehabilitation machine from IncludeFitness Inc.
Due to its cloud-based Internet connectivity, this device has broadened its scope from being simply a piece of exercise equipment to being a healthcare platform helping to facilitate data sharing and interaction among patients, therapists, technicians, administrators and even healthcare insurance providers.
Despite its small footprint, the Access Strength features rotating arms and adjustable handles that provide a tremendous number of easily adjusted upper- and lower-body exercises on one machine, and is designed to accommodate all users -- regardless of size, age, mobility or fitness level.
Ryan Eder, the 33-year-old founder and CEO of Cincinnati-based IncludeFitness, began developing the machine a decade ago, when he was still an industrial design student at the University of Cincinnati. His journey started when he saw a man in a wheelchair struggling to exercise at a local health club. After that, he called 200 health clubs across the country to ask if they offered any special accommodations for disabled guests. None did.
The able-bodied student then took the immersive route -- renting a wheelchair and going to work out, joining a wheelchair football league, interviewing paraplegics and quadriplegics -- all in an effort to try to understand what others were experiencing.
From his research, he quickly understood one thing: “I learned that anyone who was in a wheelchair had no interest in having a wheelchair-centric machine. They wanted a machine that everybody can use -- from an athlete to a senior to a child.”
So Eder began sketching, and devoted his senior thesis to this concept of an inclusive fitness machine. He graduated from UC in 2006, began working at Priority Designs in Columbus, Ohio, and entered his concept into the Industrial Designers Society of America’s awards competition -- the International Design Excellence Awards (or IDEAs).
He won big. At the 2007 IDSA conference in San Francisco, Eder captured Gold in the student category, as well as “Best in Show” among all 1,700 or so entries. Then, to cap it off, he won the “People’s Choice” award, based on voting by attendees at the conference.
That recognition catapulted the project forward, and prompted Eder to realize that this might be able to grow into something much more than just a student project. In a presentation at UC after receiving his awards, Eder made an appeal, saying, “I’m trying to build this machine. I’m trying to help people, but I need help to help people.” That drew interest from Procter & Gamble Co. and CincyTech, a local technology seed fund -- and brought in $50,000 in funding.
The P&G support led to a collaborative at UC, and Eder’s senior thesis became the thesis for about 10-12 engineering students there for the next two years. Their task was to take these concepts, which were just on paper, and prove their feasibility both electronically and mechanically.
“The biggest challenge we had,” Eder explained in an Aug. 31 telephone interview, “involved the juxtaposition between usability standards and safety standards. We had two people for UL come out to Columbus [Ohio] and evaluate one of our pre-production units, because we wanted to design it to UL 60601 specs [the harmonized standard for medical electrical equipment recognized by public health authorities in most countries], even though it’s not a medical device.”
The goal was to ensure that everything on the machine could withstand excessive abuse, and not cause any harm.
“Let’s take a seat, for example,” he said, “that needs to be adjusted with a single extremity, with no dexterity, with less than 6.7 pounds of force, but needs to have a 4x safety factor for a 350-pound patient. So it’s kind of like being able to move a tank with your finger. Those kinds of parameters cause you to be very creative, from an engineering and design perspective.”
But costs also were critical, since the ultimate machine had to be able to go into the market at a competitive price point. That limited some of their options.
“Composite materials, for example, are fantastic from a performance perspective, and are able to meet some of these conflicting parameters, but often times lead to higher costs. So we really weren’t in a position to explore unique materials or composites due to that. We’re still using traditional, injection molded plastics -- mostly ABS and acetal -- and we bent steel and powder-coated and temperature-treated it. It’s still basic materials, but it’s finding creative ways to make it very easy to use while being extremely robust and safe, for a variety of demographics.”
The Access Strength incorporates more than 20 plastic parts. Most are shrouds to protect the inner workings. Only a few of them -- the dials, specifically -- are really critical to its overall function. “The dials are precision injection molded,” Eder said, “and are an assembly of multiple parts that has a real fit-and-feel element to it, while also providing the main guide for any visual input on the machine.”
At first look, he suggests, our machine seems deceivingly simple -- “but that took a lot of effort to do. There’s a lot of functionality built into this machine. Everything has been engineered and designed from the ground up.” They didn’t, for example, use a single spring-loaded pin, which is standard in the traditional fitness industry.
“We rethought every interaction you could have with the machine. You can do every one with a single arm and a closed fist.”
Priority Designs was “insanely supportive,” Eder said. “They built the first prototype machine for me, and became partial investors in my company. I worked at Priority for seven years, and moonlit with IncludeFitness while there for seven years, eventually forming it as an LLC in 2009.”
Eder and his team built a mobile showroom -- a 40-foot rig -- and took it on a road trip in early 2013, to the Veterans Administration’s National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., and to New York City, where legendary designer Michael Graves was the first to demo it.
During this period, the idea surfaced of incorporating software into the machine. “That got us thinking about the possibilities,” Eder said. The group raised some more money -- to date, IncludeFitness has raised in total a little over $4 million -- and began developing software programs through a firm called and AWH in Columbus.
The result is IFCloud™, which Eder says essentially transformed the concept for an inclusive fitness machine into a digital health platform.
“It’s a web app,” he explains. “You can go online and build your own exercise or work-out programs. We have base libraries but you can go and create your own. It uses drag-and-drop scheduling. Go to any of our machines anywhere, use an RFID tag and pull up your profile. It tells you how to set the machine, sets the weight for you automatically, and then records all this data in the background. It keeps track of everything, and sends it back to the cloud.” The data can then be shared with therapists, doctors and even insurance companies -- “in a way that’s never been done before.”
The IF Cloud software provides a platform that can do a lot of things. “We want to sure it’s relevant for the three tiers in healthcare -- payers, providers and patients. Our focus,” Eder says, “is a higher-quality, more-efficient delivery.”
IncludeFitness works with TSS Technologies of West Chester, Ohio -- a contract manufacturing and systems integration/engineering company. TSS oversees all the procurement, production, assembly, quality control, fulfilment, and manages the supply chain. Ryan and his brother, Brandon, do all the industrial design. Priority Designs handles all the engineering, and AWH develops the software.
For the past seven years, Eder has been part of standards committees for inclusive fitness equipment for ASTM International and of RESNA, the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America.
In that time, he notes, “we’ve created 117 rules and guides to make things truly accessible. We’ve infused every one of those into our system, and we’re the only one to do that.” IncludeFitness has eight issued patents, with more pending.
Others are noticing, and the efforts are paying off. This past August in Detroit, again at IDSA’s annual international conference, Eder repeated his hat trick -- winning Gold in the 2016 IDEA competition’s Sports, Leisure & Recreation category, taking home its Design for Equality award, and snaring Best in Show, again.
The company has already sold machines, and plans to start shipping product early in 2017.
“Winning what we did this year was more rewarding than winning it the first time. Winning it the first time, I had put 10 weeks into the project. It rocked my world, and created this opportunity. But now, I have 10 years into this, and it’s so much bigger than what it was when I was a student. … Now we realize that this is just the tip of a massive iceberg. It’s very exciting for us.”
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