Working on many levels

With the Middle East, and especially Dubai, building bigger and better - and higher - towers every week, the demand for swifter negotiation of these awesome skyscrapers is becoming more and more acute. Here, Christopher Sell takes a look at the latest innovations in elevator technology.

Pushing all the right buttons: Elevator and escalator technology is having to work hard to keep pace with the demands made on it by taller and taller
Pushing all the right buttons: Elevator and escalator technology is having to work hard to keep pace with the demands made on it by taller and taller

Steepling high-rise towers, with the average tower being built in Dubai reaching ever-increasing heights, are placing greater strain on those companies whose task it is to transport people within them. Throw in the intrinsic lack of skilled workers that is afflicting all sectors of construction in the region, and it is patently clear that lift and escalatorcompanies are facing as great a challenge as any company.

And it is not just tall towers that present issues. Typically, current deadlines mean contractors are placing unrealistic delivery times on equipment and installation. Yusef Shalabi, general manager, OTIS Middle East says: "Dealing with super high-rise building requirements is still a challenge. The other challenges being faced include supplying equipment for very large projects in a very short space of time." For example, Shalabi points to the Meydan project, where the contract called for the supply and installation of 245 elevators and escalators in a period of 15 months, a job that in the present climate, will be difficult to meet. "It is practically impossible under the present circumstances," he adds.

It is Shalabi's belief, however, that those responsible for the design of the towers and developments that are appearing throughout the emirate, could assist elevator companies by pursuing a more integrated approach to ensure that they work together towards a common goal. And when questioned, it is clear how much communication there is with consultants and designers. "None whatsoever," he says. "Nearly all designs and requirements are finalised by the architect or designer prior to the issuing of the tender. Some large projects use a VT (vertical transportation) consultant to come up with their design, but these are few and the quality of some of the VT consultants practising in the area leaves a lot to be desired. Most are of the "cut and paste' variety."

The company has continued to innovate, however, and has expanded the range of belt-driven, machine room-less elevators, which has become the most popular in the world. A fortnight ago, the company celebrated the sale of the 100,000th unit of this type of elevator. It is a green model with no lubrication required for belts - which replace traditional steel ropes - and a smaller machine with less power consumption. OTIS has also introduced a new model escalator, Link, which also incorporates features like reduced power consumption and less lubrication. Furthermore, in July this year, the company inaugurated a brand new, state-of-the-art factory in Tianjin, China, which is considered the most ecologically friendly elevator and escalator factory in the world. It also secured a US $14 million (AED 51million) contract to supply and install 136 escalators and 41 elevators for the Number 10 line of the Beijing subway. The units will be installed in all 26 stations of the 32.9km line designed to serve the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

Generally, elevator technology has improved significantly with the introduction in recent years of destination selection control. The system works with a touch-screen operating panel, placed outside the cabin in the lobby of the building. By entering the desired floor, the passenger will be informed which elevator will take them to their destination the quickest. "The main advantage of this system is that it improves the efficiency of the elevators by up to 25%," says DM Nehru, manager, field support, Kone. "They will take you to the floor you want to go to quicker. So one elevator will be designated floors one, two and three, for example and another will stop at floors four, five and six. It also gives the architect or the building owner the option of placing the elevators anywhere in the building they want rather than having them positioned next to each other."

This increase in efficiency means that the amount of elevators needed in a building can be reduced, freeing up more floor space to let. It can also result in considerable gain time and raised productivity in the office. The one problem, as far as Nehru can see, is educating passengers on using the new technology. "Obviously, new users might find it difficult at first to understand the buttons are on the outside of the lift, but this is down to education and to the building manager to inform the general public that this is how the elevators operate," he adds.

Such a system is still in its infancy in the UAE - the Capital Plaza building in Abu Dhabi and Business Avenue in Dubai are two examples where the technology has been introduced. And ThyssenKrupp recently installed the system in Media 1 tower in Dubai.

ThyssenKrupp has also introduced the twin elevator system, which allows the operation of two independent cars positioned one above the other in a single shaft. By using destination selection control technology, passengers are told which car will take them to which floor. In many instances, there will be a car on the ground floor and one in either the basement or first floor, with a set of escalators linking the two. While no buildings in the Middle East use this system yet, it is believed this technology has huge potential in the region due to the number of high-rise buildings planned or under construction.

Yet for all the technological innovation and latest know-how, operating in the region still presents challenges as there is not enough skilled labour to match the products being developed. "The main challenges are the unavailability of well-trained technicians to cope with the increased workload and the unavailability of camps and housing for any technicians that we manage to recruit," says Shalabi.

Furthermore, the simple fact of inflation is having a significant impact on operators as they struggle to balance raising wages, whilst, at the same time, keeping clients onside. "The current rate of inflation is forcing companies to increase wages in addition to the cost of housing, travel and recruitment.

"The depreciation of the US dollar and thus the dirham against all major currencies is increasing our costs of material while we face a lot of resistance from clients when we try to increase the cost of our services."

Shalabi makes a further point about the roads in Dubai presenting a unique difficulty. Such is the weight of traffic in the city, and the limitations this places on personnel, companies can't make as many visits per day as they would like. As a result, they are being forced to employ more personnel to cover the same area.

While the industry is, in many respects, in good health, buoyed as it is by the investment in the real estate and financial markets in the region, there are clearly a number of issues and challenges to be overcome. Shalabi, for one, is sure of the way it is heading. "I think the next 12-18 months will be a continuation of the same issues - only worse."

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