The surprisingly cutthroat race to build the world's fastest elevator

By Adam Taylor

The vast majority of elevators installed around the world have been placed in China, where rapid urbanization has met with a desire for ambitious "super-tall" skyscrapers. Photo / The Washington Post
The vast majority of elevators installed around the world have been placed in China, where rapid urbanization has met with a desire for ambitious "super-tall" skyscrapers. Photo / The Washington Post

Elevator 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 at the elevator's front lights up to show you the car's location as it rises toward the building's newly opened observation deck. A neatly dressed attendant informs passengers that the elevator has now reached a top speed of 18 meters per second, approximately 40 mph.

"This is really fast," one passenger said during a recent packed ride up the tower.

It is, in fact, the fastest elevator in the world.

At a ceremony in Tokyo in early December, the Shanghai Tower elevators 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 elevator car with a Mitsubishi technician who can flick a switch, making the speedometer on the screen turn red: 20.5 meters per second (45.8 mph).

China is experiencing an elevator boom. Over the past decade, the vast majority of elevators installed around the world have been placed in China, where rapid urbanization has met with a desire for ambitious "super-tall" skyscrapers. It has been estimated that by 2020, 40 percent of all elevators 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 in the world taller than Shanghai Tower, but its elevators go at barely half the speed. The fastest elevator in the West, installed at 1 World Trade Center in Manhattan, runs at a paltry 23 mph. The Shanghai Tower's elevator goes even faster than the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a Disney haunted-elevator amusement-park ride that hurls thrill-seekers at 39 mph.

Look at a list of the world's fastest elevators now, and five out of the top 10 are in China.

But China's vast elevator market is slowing. As it slows, elevator 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 elevator 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 44.7-mph elevators.

In the end, Mitsubishi installed new hardware on one of the elevators in Shanghai Tower, snatching the record back from Hitachi shortly after it was lost. Mitsubishi representatives said that 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," said Ko Tanaka, the former head of Mitsubishi's China business. "They must be number one."

The race for speed


The world's first safety elevator was installed by the American company Otis in 1857 in a hotel in New York City. It traveled five floors at a speed of less than half a mile per hour.

According to Lee Gray, an associate professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, speeds improved as elevators 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 elevators across the Atlantic.

"The Brits would visit the United States and they would say, 'God, why is it going so fast?'" Gray said.

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

In 1978, Mitsubishi - inspired by Otis's record-breaking elevators in New York's Pan Am building, now known as the MetLife - installed an ultra-high-speed elevator in Tokyo's Sunshine 60 building that reached 22.3 mph. Mitsubishi beat its own record in 1993 with a 28-mph elevator in the Yokohama Landmark Tower. In 2006, the record was broken by Toshiba's Taipei 101 project.

Why Japanese firms have dominated high-speed elevators 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 elevator rides. (Comfort and noise issues with ultra-fast elevators are considerable; the Pan Am building's elevators were infamous for "howling.")

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

Mitsubishi and Hitachi would not say how much their elevators cost, but Jim Fortune, an American elevator consultant, estimated each installation at up to $3 million.

It would be hard for any elevator company to make any profit on installing these showstopper elevators, Fortune suggested: "It's all for . . . bragging rights or to get that maintenance contract."

Many in the elevator 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 elevators into unlikely tourist attractions. And in an industry with its ups and downs, publicity can be important.

"Elevators are going to be weak in terms of business," said Atsuya Fujino, the chief technology officer in Hitachi's global elevator and escalator division. "The fastest elevator in the world is going to be a very strong sales point for the company."

China's elevator gold rush

The elevator industry may have never been as unforgiving as it is now.

Why? China.

Over the past two decades, China has rapidly urbanized. To boost urban density, hundreds of thousands of elevators 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 stories or more - in the Chinese market. In a country where there are more than 160 cities with a population larger than 1 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 said.

Analysts say China accounts for 60 to 80 percent of new installations globally each year. No one else compares. The second-largest elevator market, India, is less than one-tenth the size.

The rest of the world may not have noticed, but those in the elevator 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," said 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 elevators such as those installed in Shanghai Tower may mark the end of an era.

China's economic growth has slowed dramatically over recent years, dropping from more than 10 percent to 6.7 percent 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 U.S. administration - add even more risk.

As demand for new elevators 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 said. "There's no question about that."

According to the Shanghai Elevator Trade Association, around 5 percent of smaller domestic elevator companies have already gone out of business. Even for international companies, it has been difficult. In September, Kone announced that it expected the market for new orders to drop by 5 to 10 percent over the next year. Its shares immediately fell by 3.5 percent. American giant Otis has admitted to dropping prices to stay competitive, eating into its profit margin.

For Japanese firms such as Mitsubishi and Hitachi, the Chinese market is especially vital. These companies lack the international footprint many of their American and European peers have. And while they came to prominence during Japan's own elevator boom in the late 20th century, they now face a stagnating economy and a shrinking population at home.

Going down

Hitachi is still smarting over Mitsubishi's surprise speed-record victory. When it won the contract for the elevators 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, said in the video.

The elevators 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 elevators run almost 50 mph and reclaim the crown. However, a Hitachi representative later said that there were no current plans to increase the elevator's speed.

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

"The competition for speed is over," said Yoshinori Inoue, a communications representative for Toshiba.

But there could yet be new challengers. Hyundai, a South Korean elevator manufacturer, has plans to begin testing 50 mph elevators. Canny Elevator, 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 51.4 mph would probably be the limit before passengers get sick. Traveling down quickly is even more difficult: Go too fast and the body thinks it's falling. Elevators in both the Shanghai Tower and the CTF Finance Tower go down at 22.3 mph, close to the limit.

Most importantly, even the most advanced elevator 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 said.

- Washington Post

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