The surprisingly cutthroat race to build the world’s fastest lift

The Shanghai Tower lift whisks passengers from ground level to the observation deck on the 121st floor at a blistering 64km/h. We look at the tough business of providing elevators in China, the fastest growing market

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 12:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 January, 2017, 5:30pm

Lift rides are not usually worth documenting. But when you step into the elevator at Shanghai Tower, people often pull out their cameras.

As the doors close, a screen up to show you the car’s location as it rises towards the building’s newly opened observation deck. A neatly dressed attendant informs passengers that the lift has now reached a top speed of 18 metres per second, approximately 64km/h.

“This is really fast,” one passenger says during a recent packed ride up the tower. It is, in fact, the fastest lift in the world.

At a ceremony in Tokyo in early December, the Shanghai Tower lifts and the company that made them, Mitsubishi Electric, were officially awarded the title by Guinness World Records. Yet many passengers may not even experience the top speed. To do so, you have to travel in a souped-up lift car with a Mitsubishi technician who can flick a switch, making the speedometer on the screen turn red: you will hit 20.5 metres per second.

China is experiencing a lift boom. Over the past decade, the vast majority of lifts installed around the world have been in China, where rapid urbanisation has met with a desire for ambitious “super-tall” skyscrapers. It has been estimated that by 2020, 40 per cent of all lifts will be in China. And when it comes to speed, the rest of the world can’t keep up.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the only skyscraper taller than Shanghai Tower, but its lifts go at barely half the speed. The fastest lift in the West, installed at 1 World Trade Centre in Manhattan, runs at a paltry 37km/h.

Daredevils climb Shanghai Tower without safety equipment

Look at a list of the world’s fastest lifts now, and five out of the top 10 are in China. But the country’s vast lift market is slowing. As it slows, lift companies are becoming more cutthroat – at every level.

Companies such as Mitsubishi are in competition for huge contracts with companies from all over the world. Another Japanese company, Hitachi, came close to winning the Shanghai Tower contract. It was awarded one in Guangzhou instead and then announced plans to beat Mitsubishi’s speed with its own 72km/h lifts.

In the end, Mitsubishi installed new hardware on one of the lifts in Shanghai Tower, snatching the record back from Hitachi shortly after it was lost. Mitsubishi representatives say the demands of the client, a consortium with links to the Shanghai municipal government, had prompted the decision.

“For Shanghai city, it’s their pride,” says Ko Tanaka, the former head of Mitsubishi’s China business. “They must be number one.”

The world’s first safety lift was installed by the American company Otis in 1857 in a hotel in New York City. It travelled five floors at a speed of less than 0.8km/h.

According to Lee Gray, an associate professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina, speeds improved as lifts moved from potentially explosive steam engines to more efficient hydraulic systems and on to electric traction systems. Visiting Europeans were soon unnerved by the speed of the lifts across the Atlantic.

Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest skyscraper, soars into the record books

“The Brits would visit the United States and they would say, ‘God, why is it going so fast?’” Gray says.

For much of the 20th century, the fastest lifts were installed in American cities. Then the speed race moved to Asia.

Why Japanese firms have dominated high-speed lifts is a matter of debate. Some have reasoned that it is because of the technology shared with high-speed “bullet” trains, which Hitachi and Toshiba also make. Others have suggested that it may be because Japanese consumers are notorious for insisting upon smooth lift rides. (Comfort and noise issues with ultra-fast lifts are considerable; the Pan Am building’s lifts were infamous for “howling”.)

What is certain is that these lifts can cost huge amounts of money. They need to be tested in enormous, custom-built towers. They have to be pressurised to make their rapid ascent comfortable. According to Mitsubishi, 40 people worked exclusively on the Shanghai Tower lifts.

Mitsubishi and Hitachi would not say how much their lifts cost, but Jim Fortune, an American lift consultant, estimates each installation at up to US$3 million.

It would be hard for any company to make any profit on installing these showstopper lifts, Fortune says: “It’s all for ... bragging rights or to get that maintenance contract.”

Many in the lift industry say that while the technology is impressive, faster speeds do not serve a real purpose. But high speeds may be valuable as marketing tools, turning lifts into unlikely tourist attractions. And in an industry with its ups and downs, publicity can be important.

Atsuya Fujino, the chief technology officer in Hitachi’s global lift and escalator division says, “The fastest lift in the world is going to be a very strong sales point for the company.”

To boost urban density in China, hundreds of thousands of lifts and escalators have been installed each year. There are now more than 4 million units in the country – more than four times the number in the United States. Just over a decade ago, there were barely 700,000.

There has also been a focus on super-tall buildings – 100 storeys or more – in the Chinese market. In a country with more than 160 cities with a population larger than one million, such a building can help a faceless city stand out. “They want to build these signature buildings just so people would know where they are,” Fortune says.

Analysts say China accounts for 60 per cent to 80 per cent of new installations globally each year. The second-largest lift market, India, is less than 10 per cent of the size.

Those in the lift world say it has been a boom like no other. “I’ve lived in an incredibly historic time for China, for our industry, in this country,” says Bill Johnson, head of the Finnish firm Kone’s China division since 2004. “I feel very fortunate, very lucky.”

But there is also a feeling that the glory days of the market are over – and that record-setting lifts such as those in Shanghai Tower may mark the end of an era.

China’s economic growth has slowed over recent years, dropping from more than 10 per cent to 6.7 per cent in the most recent quarter. A growing corporate debt problem and a much-feared real estate bubble – not to mention a potential trade war with the new US administration – add even more risk.

As demand for new lifts falls, major international firms have more manufacturing capacity than they can use. Meanwhile, low-end Chinese manufacturers are fighting their high-end international rivals for an increasingly small number of projects.

“It’s a brawl,” Johnson says. “There’s no question about that.”

Hitachi is still smarting over Mitsubishi’s surprise speed record victory. When it won the contract for the lifts at Guangzhou’s CTF Finance Tower, Hitachi released a video showing its executives proudly proclaiming that they would take the record.

“I get tears in my eyes,” Akihito Ando, a Hitachi sales supervisor, says in the video.

The lifts are now operating, although the tower is not yet open. At the site, some staff members grumble about their short-lived record, suggesting that they could also modify the technology to make their lifts run almost 80km/h and reclaim the crown. However, a Hitachi representative later said that there were no current plans to increase the lift’s speed.

If they don’t, when will the record next be beaten? Mitsubishi says it has no plans to break its own record at present. Toshiba, which until recently held the record with the Taipei 101 Tower, said it’s not focusing on ultra high-speed lifts anymore.

“The competition for speed is over,” says Yoshinori Inoue, a communications representative for Toshiba.

But there could yet be new challengers. South Korea’s Hyundai has plans to begin testing 80km/h lifts. Canny lift, a Chinese company based just outside Shanghai, is building a 3,100-foot test tower that it says will be the tallest in the world.

How much further the record can be pushed is unclear. One recent study suggested that 82.7km/h would probably be the limit before passengers get sick. Travelling down quickly is even more difficult: Go too fast and the body thinks it’s falling. lifts in both the Shanghai Tower and the CTF Finance Tower go down at 35.88km/h, close to the limit.

Most importantly, even the most advanced lift still needs a big building to go in. Right now it’s unclear where such buildings will be. While many say that India could one day be the next China, Rizk Maidi, an analyst with German bank Berenberg, doubts it will ever be as ambitious.

“I don’t think we’ll see a repeat of the Chinese boom,” he says.

The Washington Post