As skyscrapers rise ever higher, elevator makers focus on speed

Massive market awaits in China

The Burj Kalifa tower in Dubai uses Otis Elevator Co. lifts that whisk visitors skyward at 22 miles per hour. Now, Hitachi and Hyundai are racing to produce 40-mile-per-hour elevators. The Burj Kalifa tower in Dubai uses Otis Elevator Co. lifts that whisk visitors skyward at 22 miles per hour. Now, Hitachi and Hyundai are racing to produce 40-mile-per-hour elevators. (Claudia Capos for The Boston Globe/File 2010)
By Jason Clenfield
Bloomberg News / May 31, 2010

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TOKYO — In the 1950s, architect Frank Lloyd Wright predicted the shape of cities would be decided by the winner of a race between car and elevator.

“Anyone who bets on the elevator is crazy,’’ he said.

China may prove him wrong. About 350 million Chinese — more than today’s entire US population — will move to China’s cities in the next 15 years, according to the consultant McKinsey & Co., and government measures to limit sprawl and protect farmland mean developers have to build up, rather than out.

McKinsey estimates as many as 50,000 skyscrapers will be built in China during that time, the equivalent of 10 Manhattans.

The building boom has manufacturers racing to grab a piece of an $11.7 billion-a-year Chinese elevator market that the researcher Freedonia Group says will double within eight years.

Otis Elevator Co. leads, with a 23 percent share, but Hitachi Ltd. and Hyundai Elevator Co. are looking to make names for themselves by breaking elevator speed records.

“They want to get into the big boys’ playground,’’ said James Fortune, an elevator consultant who has advised architects on some of the world’s tallest buildings, including the current record holder, Dubai’s 128-story Burj Kalifa. “You don’t hear the big guys bragging about the world’s fastest elevators.’’

Hitachi last month finished building a $66 million, 50-story testing tower. The company will use it to develop elevators that could take the speed title from Toshiba Corp. Two days after the tower opened, Hyundai vowed it would break the record by midyear.

Hitachi and its South Korean rival are racing to be first with elevators that can climb at 40 miles per hour.

Otis, which supplied the 57 lifts for the Burj Kalifa, is the world’s oldest and biggest elevator maker. Its share of the world market slipped to 20 percent in 2008, from 26 percent four years earlier, according to Freedonia. A United Technologies unit, it had sales of $11.7 billion last year, 50 percent more than its closest rival, Switzerland’s Schindler Holding AG.

Otis is scrambling to stay ahead. The company will soon start construction on a fifth Chinese factory, to capitalize on a government push to help less-developed areas catch up.

The government’s “go-west policy’’ is one reason about half of the 450,000 elevators installed this year worldwide will be in Chinese buildings, said Rick Pulling, Otis’s head of high-rise operations.

Chinese manufacturers are also expanding. Shenyang Brilliant Elevator Co. is moving in July to a 222-acre elevator factory in Shenyang that it says will be the world’s largest. The plant will crank out 50,000 elevators a year.

Taller buildings require faster and more exotic lifts.

Wright, the architect who designed New York’s Guggenheim Museum, sketched a fantasy skyscraper in 1956 that would have been a mile high. The plan called for 76 atomic-powered, quintuple-deck lifts, including express elevators that could reach the top of the 528-story building in a minute.

Dubai’s Burj Kalifa is about half the height of Wright’s proposed tower and uses double-deck lifts that whisk visitors to its observation floor at 22 miles per hour.

“You don’t have to have the world’s fastest, but you have to have fast,’’ said Otis’s Pulling, who worked on the Dubai project for more than a year. “You can’t go tall without it.’’

Masayuki Mimura, a planning manager at Hitachi’s elevator unit, said China wants the highest buildings and the fastest lifts as a mark of prestige.

“When they do something, they want to be number one,’’ he said. “That means they’re putting up taller and taller buildings. We have to be able to meet their needs.’’

Some 294 buildings 50 stories or taller were built in the last decade, more than all of the skyscrapers constructed in the century before that, according to the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

About half of those buildings were in China and Hong Kong.

“On the east coast of China, they’ve got about 30 cities that have over 5 million people and every one of them wants to build an iconic building,’’ Fortune said. “People are looking to put themselves on the map.’’