Why Japan builds the fastest elevators

May 8

 (Kimimasa Mayama/EPA)

Over the past few decades, the Japanese have become renowned for engineering some of the world’s fastest elevators. In fact, of the eight fastest elevators, four have been developed by Japanese manufacturers. The latest benchmark-setting example comes from Hitachi, which recently announced a system that will transport visitors from the lobby to the 95th floor in a mere 43 seconds.

Housed in the Guangzhou CTF Finance Center in China, a 111-floor commercial skyscraper scheduled to open in 2016, the dual-car elevators ascend at a rate of around 4,000 feet per minute or roughly 45 mph. Once in operation, the lift would surpass the world speed record of 37 mph currently held by a pair of Toshiba elevators installed at the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan. Previously, a Mitsubishi-built elevator located at Japan’s Yokohama Landmark Tower was the high-rise champion.

In total, the 1,700-foot building will house 95 elevators, including 13 high-speed elevators that will allow guests to frequent offices, hotel rooms and other residential spaces. Bob Nicholson, architect and founder of Architectural Elevator Consulting in Seattle who wasn’t involved in the project, said the record-setting elevators will likely be used for express access to a popular attraction, such as a skydeck, located near the top. With such limited functionality, he considers the project to be mostly what they refer to in the industry as a “trophy job” meant to boost Hitachi’s reputation as a leading player in the business.

“I’d guess that the ultra-high speed elevators probably cost about three million each, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re giving them away because the unique circumstance gives Hitachi the chance to brag about having the fastest elevators,” Nicholson said. “Now it’s going to be in their brochure, which should help them secure more contracts.”

An artist's rendering of the Guangzhou CTF Finance Center. (Hitachi)
An artist’s rendering of the Guangzhou CTF Finance Center. (Hitachi)

In Japan, the business of efficiently moving people to their desired floor is hotly competitive, with four major companies (Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Toshiba and Fujitec) producing about a quarter of the world’s elevators. The market for elevator equipment, which includes escalators and moving walkways, is expected to climb steadily to $111 billion by the 2017, with Japan’s rapidly industrializing Asian neighbor, China, accounting for nearly half of the sector’s growth. Companies locked in a continuous race to the top are no doubt well-aware of how such “bragging rights” can impact the bottom line.

Japan’s noted prowess in elevator design was in part born out of its unique geological situation. Tokyo, for instance, rests along the immediate danger zone that surrounds the volatile Median Tectonic Line. After getting rocked by earthquakes back in 1992 and 2005, city regulators pushed builders to upgrade all of the city’s roughly 150,000 elevators with a number of safeguarding technologies, such as sensors that can detect the initial minute vibrations that signal that start of a major tremor. This allows the elevator to possibly pre-empt the risk of riders getting trapped by moving them to the nearest floor. Compared to the United States — particularly outside of California — lift systems are built using stiffer, thicker guide rails designed to withstand violent seismic activity, Nicholson explains.

Japanese elevators also have a reputation for providing remarkably smooth rides. Nicholson attributes this to designers paying particular attention to the system’s alignment and subjecting their models through rigorous field-testing. Fujitec, which claims to make “the World’s Smoothest Riding Elevators,” ensures that their systems pass what’s called a “nickel test.” The test involves a technician putting a nickel on the floor, standing on its edge and running the elevator from the top to bottom. If the doors opens and the nickel is still upright, it passes.

It’s precisely through having established such advantages that have enabled companies like Hitachi to level up and push for greater velocity. Among their latest version’s most notable innovative features: a powerful slim magnet synchronous motor that, when combined with a compact traction machine with thinner, yet stronger ropes, helps reduce overall weight; guide rollers that detects and corrects even the slightest vibrations; an air pressure adjustment system that minimizes fluctuations in air pressure that would otherwise cause people’s eardrums to rupture.

While impressive, Nicholson points out that the record-setting “moving speed” applies only to the ascent. Going down is a different story, with speeds drastically reduced to a limit of 2,000 feet per minute, likely for safety reasons. Mitigating the rise in air pressure during descent is trickier, he says, and would require an air pressurization system almost akin to what’s used in commercial airplanes.

Hitachi did not respond to a request for interviews. Nicholson predicts that we’ll likely see ultra high-speed elevators outfitted with such a system to best control air pressure during descent within the next decade. “The key isn’t just to develop it,” he says, “We already know it’s possible. We just need to figure out how to make it cost effective.”

Ultimately, that may end up being the most important race between now and then.

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Dominic Basulto | May 8