The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is the first of a breed of ultratall buildings that will exceed 3,000 feet in height. That’s more than twice as tall as New York’s Empire State Building. United Technologies’ (UTX) Otis Elevator, Switzerland-based Schindler Group (SCHN:SW), and Finland’s Kone (KNEBV:FH) are racing to perfect technologies ranging from stronger brakes to smarter software to move riders more efficiently and capture the market. “We’ve become the bottleneck of the super high-rise building,” says Johannes de Jong, director of projects and technology at Kone, which supplied the elevators in Saudi Arabia’s 1,972-foot Makkah Clock Royal Tower and the 1,667-foot Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan, the world’s second- and third-tallest buildings. “We are definitely verging on technology that will allow buildings to be higher,” he says.
At Kone’s test facility in Lohja, Finland, built 1,000 feet down a limestone mine, the company is tackling a problem that’s more familiar to frequent flyers than elevator riders. Engineers are determining the optimal speed for fans that control air pressure inside cars, which can descend in a mega-high-rise building faster than a commercial airplane coming in for a landing, De Jong says. Jets may have 30 minutes to reduce cabin pressure as they approach the airport; elevators in the tallest buildings may have just 30 seconds to depressurize.
For Dubai’s 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa tower, the world’s tallest building at the moment, Otis designed a system using double-deck cars, computerized dispatch, and its compact Gen2 lifts, which replace steel cables with polyurethane-coated belts. It uses smaller, gearless drives instead of bulky motors, eliminating the need for a large engine room.
To reach even higher, Otis is going back to its mid-19th century beginnings. Company founder Elisha Otis’s breakthrough invention was a spring-loaded mechanism that could catch his primitive elevator if the rope lifting it failed. He teamed with master showman P.T. Barnum to demonstrate the invention at the 1854 World’s Fair in New York, where he had himself hoisted into the air aboard one of his elevators and then, brandishing a saber, cut the rope. His device kicked in, arresting his fall.
Stopping a plunging elevator today is more complicated: A car falling from the top of a building as tall as the Kingdom Tower would generate the same amount of energy as a half-full tractor-trailer driving off a cliff. To check a free fall, Otis is developing brakes made of advanced alloys that can withstand the heat—in excess of 300C—that comes from stopping 16 metric tons of elevator car and cable descending at about 50 miles per hour.
Outfitting the world’s tallest buildings with elevators doesn’t necessarily come with a huge paycheck. Otis received $36 million for its work on Burj Khalifa in 1995, the year the contract was awarded. Competing for such business is still worth the effort, says Otis President Pedro Baranda, and not just for the prestige. The technologies developed to serve the tallest towers often find their way into more typical-size buildings, he says.
“We’re reinvesting in the skyscraper, because the buildings on the drawing board right now are just different,” Baranda says. “Understanding the elevatoring of a very high-rise building can often give you insights into what you can do better at the lower end.”
Skyscraper construction is rebounding as the global economy regains its footing after the slump. As many as 24 skyscrapers approaching 1,000 feet may be completed in 2013, compared with nine in 2012, according to the Council on Tall Buildings & Urban Habitat, and even loftier structures are on the drawing board. Cleveland-based researcher Freedonia Group estimates the global elevator market will grow 6.4 percent annually, to reach $90 billion by 2015.
As buildings stretch higher, elevator companies will have to explore even more advanced ways to move people. That might mean using huge magnets to propel elevator cars, doing away with much of the bulky machinery that limits how high they can go today, according to Antony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings.
It could also involve designs that leave more available space to lease for building owners. The ultimate goal for elevators would be “developing a system where they don’t have to go in a strictly vertical plane,” Wood says. “This could be something that’s within reach not too many years in the future.”