What's changed in the lift industry and what does the future hold?

Gareth Lomax from Ardent Lift Consultants explores what has changed in recent years in the lift industry and asks what is to come in the future:

As in every walk of life, the lift industry is always looking at ways to innovate, whether this be in terms of health and safety, energy efficiency or to maximise the available space within the core of a building.

Our industry has changed in so many ways over the past 20-30 years, predominantly for the better, with the advent of microprocessor control, motor drives and control systems; all have increased safety and provide energy efficiencies by a huge degree. However, lift systems from the 1960s and 70s with older technology were far more accessible with fewer components prone to failure, unlike the ‘obsolescence’ issues than we find with some modern control systems.

Fortunately, within the UK we have an excellent reputation for control technology that is both reliable and is fully supported by the original manufacturers offering long term technical assistance to their full range of products.

Sadly however, we still come up against material being purchased and installed from Europe (and beyond) that lacks adequate levels of technical assistance and backup that one should rightly expect. This is not to say they are necessarily bad products, nevertheless there is a strong case of ‘buyer beware’ when analysing the long-term support offered by off-shore companies for the equipment they are installing.

Energy Efficiency

This is an area where the lift industry has really improved with the advent of new technology, with more efficient forms of powering the lift available including:

  • Gearless permanent machines;
  • Efficient, flow controlled hydraulic systems;
  • Variable voltage, variable frequency drives;
  • Regenerative drive systems powering the auxiliary functions;
  • Low energy lighting and peripherals;
  • Hibernation modes for non-critical functions.

Lift systems are quite a small element of the overall running costs of a large development (particularly when factoring communal heating and lighting); however, the impact of lift running costs have certainly been mitigated by these advances.

Destination Control

With the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), we are living in an age of smart technology around the home, with fridges that remind you to stock up on groceries, heating systems which learn your movements, etc. which in turn has inspired the lift industry to keep pace. Modern office (and increasingly residential) buildings utilise destination control, whereby your progress within the building is anticipated when first entering the front entrance and by swiping a card. This signals a lift to immediately be dispatched to your location, with it ready to take you to your pre-programmed chosen destination.

There are many studies that have been undertaken on the efficiency of these systems and in principal, they are more efficient than the traditional push button technology; however, when dealing with AI situations, human nature is often the weak link in the chain. For example, if you walk into a lift with no apparent push buttons, which takes you directly to a pre-selected floor without your input, if you have forgotten your wallet or handbag, you may have difficulty in reversing your journey without help from a concierge or neighbour…

Yet another trend we have noted in this regard is that as developers feel the lift system is more efficient (in terms of passenger handling capacity), they want to provide less lift installations as a result, which can have a big impact on the usability of a property!

In this year alone, we have been engaged by the property manager of a forty-storey residential building served by only three lifts; they have lost lift service to the entire block for days at a time. Elsewhere, we are engaged in helping residents within a twelve-floor block of flats in London served by just one lift. The lift, being imported into the UK with the primary design criteria being economy, is now reaching the end of its design life with reliability and accessibility suffering as a result. The original building design brief clearly had a major role to play in the situation that the residents now face. By any standards, one lift serving a twelve-floor residential building is pushing the limits of good practice for the provision of lift service.

In both instances they have some difficult decisions to make over their long-term lift strategy, which we believe we can mitigate but not totally eradicate.

Material Choices

The lift industry in certain ways has not progressed as far as comparative industries i.e. the automotive industry which has embraced lightweight materials for bodywork, interior composition, etc. The major suppliers; however, have invested in CAD/CAM systems resulting in considerable weight savings in lift systems reducing the system masses providing significant reductions in energy usage and efficiency. Notwithstanding this, we still utilise traditional steel derivatives such as stainless steel and structural mild steel fabrication. Some advances have been demonstrated by a few major manufacturers using Kevlar and Carbon Fibre hoisting systems in place of traditional steel main hoisting ropes, which continue to be the most commonly used.

The latest development to this end comes from Kone and their ‘Ultra’ Rope System, which provides a suspension belt utilising carbon fibre technology. These have been developed for very high-rise buildings and are intended to take mass from the lift system. Currently one of the limiting factors for extreme high-rise buildings (as seen in the Far and Middle East) is the mass of the hoisting system/ropes.

The weight associated with the hundreds of metres of ropes from these systems can be immense and require compensation devices to offset these unbalanced loads when a lift is either at the top or bottom of a lift shaft. Nevertheless, if new technologies can be used to negate these loads from the lift system, it should prove far more energy efficient. Some of the systems also use technology to monitor the life expectancy of the belts, reporting when the material is at the end of its safe working life.

Remote Monitoring

Many lifts now use remote monitoring technology allowing information from the control systems to be instantly reviewed and accessed by the lift company. The lift company can check on the current lift status, ask the lift to perform self-test functions and show basic levels serviceability.

These systems are now in wide use by many organisations including housing schemes with large portfolios where constant monitoring is required. In the future these systems will be asked to supply considerably more information back to HQ using GSM data systems providing digital information to both lift companies and clients. This facility will enable fault diagnosis along with predictive wear and failure of components to be recorded over time, showing lift usage trends, energy consumption, temperatures and lift performance data. This will also assist the lift service companies and owners to accurately plan into the future reducing lift down times along with repair and maintenance costs.

We are currently working with a client on a project in Cambridgeshire (the UK technologies hub) where they are looking to realise this functionality as part of a lift modernisation scheme.

Lift Designs

Another recent release to market is the ThyssenKrupp ‘Multi’ Lift System, which operates more like the Circle Line tube line and is similar in principle to the Paternoster of old with lift cars arriving at floors and distributing passengers vertically (and even horizontally) throughout a building, again moving far beyond traditional rope driven systems.

We anticipate that these systems may work in principal and would certainly appeal to architects given the reduction of the number of lift shafts required within the design of larger buildings. Whether we will ever see this type of lift replacing the ‘orthodox’ system is open to question, as the adage of ‘If it’s not broken…’ will no doubt take precedent.

The Future

With any new concepts in design and technology the prime driving force must be safety. After all, lifts that proved to be safe for carrying passengers lead to the first buildings of more than 5 or 6 floor floors. This was initially achieved by Elisha Otis in New York in 1852 with the invention of his patented safety system, the forerunner of all modern lift safety gear systems.

We can hypothesise on the future of lift technology, with electromagnetic suspension already being used by the rail industry with Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains providing frictionless travel since the 1980’s, yet still seeming like science fiction to the general public.

And so speaking of science fiction we have asked Richie De-Benham, fellow elevator engineer and author of the award winning Sci-Fi novel ‘COUNTERWEIGHT MANEUVER’, which incidentally features an ‘advanced space elevator’, his thoughts on where the next quantum leap may come from within our industry…

Richie comments:

“I agree that much has changed with regards to new technology being introduced within the lift industry, and for my part I can see incredible further advances that are about to be made over the next 30-40 years that will affect all industries.

These further strides will fall into two main categories; the introduction of super lightweight materials becoming readily available, while at the same time incredible robotic technology having the ability to take over many present-day human tasks.

Carbon nanotubes are at the forefront of this new technology and we are also learning much from the humble spider that can cast a web stronger than steel.

Can you imagine a lift or elevator being installed by walking robots? I can, and I think this is only the very beginning.

What about the space elevator, can you imagine taking the elevator up to orbit level and looking down at planet earth from your panoramic hotel window? The possibilities are endless if you have the right technology to hand.

Going a little further into the future, how about floating cities in space! These incredible structures could house thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people.

At first only becoming power stations to harness the unlimited energy from the sun and then beaming that energy down to earth, but eventually expanding into gigantic orbiting metropolises that will have the ability to become totally self-sufficient cities.

All these things will only become available if they manage to perfect the technology to get them there.

The likelihood of these things happening are truly within our grasp.”

Gareth Lomax is the Managing Director of Ardent Lift Consultancy.

As independent lift consultants, ARDENT Lift Consultancy recognise the importance of offering unbiased and accurate advice to their clients.

Reviewed: July 2019