Speedy rise to the top

High-speed lifts in China are all the rage

The lifts in Shanghai Tower (centre), made by Japanese firm Mitsubishi Electric, are the fastest in the world.
The lifts in Shanghai Tower (centre), made by Japanese firm Mitsubishi Electric, are the fastest in the world.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SHANGHAI • Stepping into the lift at Shanghai Tower, people often pull out their cameras.

As the doors close, a screen at the lift's front lights up to show you the car's location as it rises towards the building's newly opened observation deck. An attendant informs passengers that the lift has now reached a top speed of 18m a second, about 65kmh. "This is really fast," one passenger said recently.

It is the fastest lift in the world. Last month, the Shanghai Tower lifts and Mitsubishi Electric, which made them, were given 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 lift with a Mitsubishi technician who can flick a switch, making the speedometer on the screen turn red: 20.5m a second.

China is experiencing a lift boom. Over the past decade, most lifts installed around the world have been in China, where rapid urbanisation has met with a desire for "super-tall" skyscrapers. It has been estimated that by 2020, 40 per cent of all lifts will be in China.

And looking at a list of the world's fastest lifts now, five out of the top 10 are in China. But the country's vast lift market is slowing and, as a result, lift companies are becoming more cut-throat.

Another Japanese lift company, Hitachi, had come 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 70kmh lifts.

In the end, Mitsubishi installed new hardware on one of the lifts in Shanghai Tower, snatching the record back from Hitachi.

Mitsubishi representatives said 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 No. 1."

Why Japanese firms have dominated such lifts is a matter of debate. Some have reasoned that it is due to the technology shared with high- speed "bullet" trains, which Hitachi and Toshiba also make.

But there could yet be new challengers. Hyundai, a South Korean lift manufacturer, has plans to begin testing 80kmh lifts.

Mitsubishi and Hitachi would not say how much their lifts cost, but American consultant Jim Fortune estimated each installation to cost up to US$3 million (S$4.3 million).

Faster speeds do not serve a real purpose, but may be valuable as marketing tools, turning lifts into tourist attractions.

There has also been a focus on super-tall buildings - 100 storeys or more - in China. In a country where there are more than 160 cities, such a building can help a faceless city stand out.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2017, with the headline 'Speedy rise to the top'. Print Edition | Subscribe