Live from the 2013 NEOCON Tradeshow

June 13, 2013
Neocon 2013

This year’s NEOCON show – the pre-eminent national trade show for all things office furniture that is held annually in Chicago – offered some groundbreaking developments for the treadmill desk industry. It’s still pretty unusual to find treadmill desks at trade shows but they are occasionally spotted in the wild at esoteric fitness or ergonomics shows. NEOCON, taking up 5 floors of Chicago’s prestigious Merchandise Mart building, is many times larger with a global draw of 700 exhibitors and 40,000 architecture and design professionals roaming through.

Ironically, Steelcase, which has ginormous permanent showroom on the 3rd floor of the Merchandise Mart (along with the Herman Millers and Hayworths of the world) does not deem to have their Steelcase Walkstation Treadmill Desk on display, ceding to LifeSpan Fitness the mantle of being the only walking desk manufacturer to exhibit at this year’s show.

As hot-selling as the Walkstation has been (a rumored 60,000+ units) an estimated few hundred million dollars of sales over the past seven years since its introduction apparently didn’t warrant it even a corner spot in the sleeping giant’s prestigious Chicago showroom. We’re guessing that next year will see the arousal not only from Steelcase but possibly several of their furniture goliath kin also rumored to be working on treadmill desk products.

To accelerate the impending atomic collision between the sports equipment makers and the furniture makers LifeSpan unveiled a new desk system for standard modular cubicle systems at this show, specifically designed to incorporate treadmill desks into 8 or 12 foot wall segments. Talk about poking the furniture behemoths in the eye with a sharp stick. Watch our Product Reviews section for a review of this new desk system in the very near future.

We spent several hours in the LifeSpan booth observing the reaction from corporate and government furniture buyers, designers and furniture dealers, and perhaps were as amazed at how many people already knew about treadmill desks as we were by how many stood back squinting quizzically at the TR1200s and TR5000s on display, encountering them for the first time. Clearly the company is making hay as long as the sun is shining exclusively on them, even on this turf that is otherwise so clearly “owned” by the multi-billion dollar furniture giants.

The treadmill desk business is made up of treadmill vendors and desk vendors, and while LifeSpan stood out prominently as the first of a new class of exhibitor at NEOCON it’s the desk vendors that took a giant evolutionary step forward at this NEOCON.

What really caught everyone’s attention at this show was just the sheer number of desk manufacturers that introduced new height-adjustable versions of their office desk furniture – electric, counterbalanced, spring-balanced, crank, push-in pin, you name it – there were literally dozens of desk manufacturers and component vendors unveiling new sit-to-stand desks in every shape, color, material and size imaginable. At least 90% of these desks could also be used with treadmill bases to make for some truly fine treadmill desk workstations.

The quality of these desks ran from a few “cheap Chinese knock-offs” to a plethora of ultra-elegant, ultra-tech and ultra-hardened “mission critical” varieties, some selling for up to $14,000 and boasting an octopus of monitor arms (for military and paramilitary command post applications). Many new models in the $500 to $3,000 range will be put through the mill at the WorkWhileWalking testing labs over the coming months so keep an eye out for at least a dozen upcoming height-adjustable desk reviews. It’s going to take us a little while to separate the also-rans from the true innovators, especially since most desk manufacturers seem to be relying on one of four dominant OEM suppliers of lift mechanisms, leaving nothing but their surface materials to differentiate them from competitors.

Only a handful of manufacturers design every component of their desks – especially the lift mechanisms – to create true proprietary differentiation in form factor, lift speed, smoothness, weight capacity, reliability and cost, as well as sound and energy signatures. We saw some lift mechanisms that looked like they were designed to hold air-to-ground guided missile launchers, others that would work will with nothing more than an iPad weighing them down. The full spectrum was there to behold at NEOCON.

Perhaps the most innovative desk we got to play with at NEOCON was a wicked cool prototype model from WorkRight, to be readied for market by the end of this year, and not yet priced but we imagine to be ranked in the ultra-premium bracket. As the company puts it “these are the first desks ever to come with their own apps.”

From an iPad app we were able to command the elegant red-framed, black-topped Workrite desk to change its height, set vertical position presents and toggle power to the desk, monitor, computer power strip and built-in lamp. We could even look at energy consumption graphs and sitting/standing time graphs. Various methods of “logging into” the desks were described or demonstrated, including simply slapping an RFID employee badge down on the end of the desk, which triggered an instant automatic repositioning of the desk surface to that employee’s memorized height preference.

“Innovation” at a furniture show is often mocked as being nothing more than a new bracket, color or fabric wrapped around or bolted to the same old stuff. This year marked a milestone for desk manufacturers, making it clear that going forward you either have a selection of adjustable-height desks in your line or you might as well stay home next year.

It was curious to see how many exhibitors had quotes from The Mayo Clinic’s Dr. James Levine (author of Move a Little, Lose a Lot and “father of the treadmill desk”) emblazoned on their booth walls to cast aspersions on sitting disease and a little ergoshine on their brands.

Corporate America, government and educational buyers have spoken and the industry has responded, albeit about seven years later in the US than it has in Europe where progressive governments long ago mandated that sedentary workers to be supplied with sit-to-stand desks on ergonomic grounds. Next up? Mandates for treadmill desks, just watch.

Were you at NEOCON this year? Did we miss anything that might be interesting to’s readers? Please let us know!

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