Supertall Towers Are Driving an Elevator Revolution

A new generation of skyscrapers is pushing manufacturers to update a 2,000-year-old Roman technology.
Illustration: Evan Cohen for Bloomberg Businessweek

Two thousand years ago, the Romans used elevators—powered by pulleys, levers, and slaves—to raise gladiators and wild beasts into the Colosseum for death-match spectacles. Since then, elevator technology has been largely based on the same mechanics, with electricity-propelled cables, rather than teams of rope-hauling humans, providing the lift. These days, however, an engineering revolution is going on. Driven by a boom in megatowers the Romans could not have imagined, the global giants that dominate the industry are engaged in technological one-upmanship.

Real estate developers are on pace to build 187 towers soaring at least 250 meters (820 feet, or almost the length of three football fields) over the next two years. That’s triple the number of such megatowers built in the entire 20th century. It’s forcing companies such as Kone, Thyssenkrupp, and Otis Elevator to reach higher than ever in search of their next breakthrough.

Kone’s high-rise test laboratory in Tytyri, Finland.
Source: Kone

Kone Oyj, which manages a global workforce of 55,000 from Espoo, Finland, says it’s “pushing the limits of elevator physics” at a 350-meter-deep lab it recently reopened inside an active limestone mine west of Helsinki. The expanded facility holds 11 shafts where Kone conducts experiments involving everything from its patented superlight hoisting material to robotics, vibrational resonance, and free falls.

In Germany, Thyssenkrupp AG’s elevator division has erected a 246-meter testing tower in Rottweil as it tries to perfect a maglev design that will do away with cables and pulleys altogether. Known as Multi, the magnetic system will be able to move people sideways as well as vertically and run inside or outside a building, offering architects a new range of possibilities. Although division chief Andreas Schierenbeck says the rollout is on track for 2020, he still worries about keeping up with his rivals. “We could do better,” he says. “Maybe that’s me being the typical German engineer.”

Global annual revenue from making and maintaining elevators and escalators will rise to $114 billion in 2021, from $96.7 billion in 2016, estimates researcher Freedonia Group. One reason: China’s historic urbanization program, which has made it the epicenter of the high-rise frenzy. Otis, a United Technologies Corp. unit, is planning a 270-meter testing tower in China. Kone opened its own 235-meter facility there in 2015.

Kone, Otis, and Thyssenkrupp, together with Switzerland’s Schindler Group and Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi Electric Corp., constitute the Big Five in the so-called supertall business, says Jim Fortune, an elevator consultant who helped design the vertical-transport network used in Dubai’s 828-meter Burj Khalifa skyscraper. He says the heft of the Big Five, which each have a global presence and at least 85 years of experience building and maintaining lift systems, has dissuaded newcomers from entering the business. Still, the basic tenets of the industry—maximizing elevator systems’ ability to efficiently handle an unknown mix of passenger trips across a known number of floors—are the same in giant skyscrapers as in buildings of more modest height.

“It’s all based on probability theory,” says Fortune, who worked on the designs for Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower. That will be the first building to reach 1,000 meters—nine times the height of NASA’s first moonshot rocket—when it’s finished sometime around 2020.

Kone won the 57-elevator Jeddah contract, the details of which are closely guarded, in part because of its invention of UltraRope. The carbon fiber wire is so much lighter than steel, the company says it doubles the maximum height an elevator car can be hoisted in a single run, to 1,000 meters. UltraRope doesn’t require lubricant and resonates at a different frequency than steel, limiting the impact of the rough winds that can cause a tall building to sway and make elevators run less smoothly.

Traditional cables require much larger mechanisms and more power to operate, one reason why rides to the top of skyscrapers such as the Burj and London’s Shard are broken into stages. Kone has agreements to supply four of the seven buildings higher than 500 meters now under construction, all in Asia, according to the Skyscraper Center. Installation prices for the tallest buildings can range from $500,000 for single-car elevators to more than $1 million for double-deckers (which stop on alternate floors, reducing the number of stops per run).

Kone’s inventions have helped it become Finland’s largest nonfinancial enterprise. As it captured a dominant position in China over the past decade, its shares rose fivefold, boosting its market value to more than $30 billion. But one area where the company has lagged is speed. Mitsubishi’s 121-story NexWay system in the 632-meter Shanghai Tower set three records in 2016, including one for traveling 73.8 kilometers (45.9 miles) per hour. A month later, Otis’s Sky Shuttle in the 555-meter Lotte World Tower in Seoul set speed records in the double-decker category.

More than bragging rights are at play. Faster, direct elevators that don’t require multiple transfers mean shorter waiting and trip times—making buildings more desirable to tenants. “If there’s an innovative solution that we can be part of at an early stage, we want to do that,” says Adam Adielsson, project manager for developer Serneke Group AB’s 245-meter Karlatornet tower, expected to be the tallest building in the Nordic countries when it’s completed in 2021. It will use Kone lifts.

The Big Five are setting benchmarks so fast that one of the biggest hurdles to innovation now is the human body. No matter how quickly elevators go up, they all have to come down at about the same speed—no more than about 10 meters per second—because the inner ear doesn’t adjust to descent as well as to ascent. And then there’s another constraint that Fortune says companies don’t like to talk about: bladder compression. “Older people can wet their pants if they come down too fast,” he says. “I’ve never seen a real study on that.” —With Oliver Sachgau

    BOTTOM LINE - Global elevator and escalator companies, whose revenues exceeded $96 billion in 2016, are benefiting from a supertower construction boom across Asia.
    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.