The world may soon get the first passenger elevator (enclosure) that is made out of composite materials.
Unveiled by the Singapore Lift Company (SLC) on Wednesday (Jan 11), the elevator, named “8”, uses lightweight composite materials and marks a shift away from steel – the material that is used traditionally in the manufacturing of elevators.
Established in August 2015, SLC is a joint venture between local property developer Far East Organization, construction and civil engineering firm Woh Hup and holding company Pronus (HK).
Composites include a variety of materials such as carbon fibre-reinforced polymers (CFRP), glass fibre-reinforced polymers and bio-derived polymers. Given their relative lightness, high strength and better corrosion resistance, such materials have been tapped by various industries including aerospace, deep-sea exploration and even sports like Formula One.
For example, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’s A350 use lightweight carbon fibre composites, which are one-fifth the weight of steel but are at least five times stronger, to replace aluminium alloys in their airframes.
This will, however, be the first time that composite materials are used for elevator, but SLC’s managing director, Alister Bennett, said safety will be assured.
“We want people to feel reassured that composites are safe. They are lighter, stronger and the applications are amazing,” he said, citing the example of aluminium honeycomb panels which are used both in its elevator and the 787 Dreamliner.
“The aluminium honeycomb panels are normally used on the flaps, which are lifted on the wings when (the plane) is about to land and that involves a phenomenal amount of atmospheric pressure,” he explained.
SLC has also run tests such as loading its elevator with 1,600kg of weights before letting it fall down the lift shaft. “We wanted to see if it would break. In the end, the cabin was fine,” Mr Bennett said.
For now, the elevator has been given a concept approval from Liftinstituut, one of Europe’s certification organizations for lift and escalator systems. It is awaiting final approval from the organization as well as the issue of certification from Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA), which it hopes to receive by the end of the first quarter.
After this, it hopes to make its elevator commercially available by the fourth quarter of 2017.
In the meantime, SLC will be partnering local company Admiralty International to build its lift cabins in Singapore.
Admiralty International’s director, Chia Thien Fook, told Channel NewsAsia at the launch: “We produce composite materials for boats used by the Singapore Navy and these boats that we built more than 10 years ago are still in use. People usually think that because it’s plastic, it means it’s not going to be lasting, but that’s not true.”
LIGHTER, BIGGER AND EASIER INSTALLATION
A “simple lunchtime discussion” with his father over the cost and time involved in the replacement of escalators in London’s metro system, otherwise known as the Tube, was what inspired Mr Bennett to consider the use of composite materials for elevator and escalators. His father, Nigel Bennett, was the former chief executive of Hong Kong-headquartered elevator and escalator provider, Jardine Schindler.
He said: “In the London underground, some of the escalators are very old and need to be replaced in entirety. Unfortunately, an escalator is built in long sections and needs to be lifted out by cranes. In order for them to do the replacement, they need to demolish parts of the station and the construction work takes up several months and millions of pounds.
“So I started to think why not make the truss in composite so that we can flat pack it, carry it through the entrance and put it together.”
“That would save a massive amount of money and time.”
Similarly, the composite elevator will require a shorter installation time, labour and amount of construction materials, according to Mr Bennett.
While the installation of a traditional elevator on one floor takes about five working days, the composite lift involves just one day’s work due to its relatively lighter weight of 150kg. A traditional elevator is made of steel that has the same capacity weighs about 1,500kg.
“It does away with the need for complicated shaft designs and the substantial amount of structural support in the form of concrete walls and steel supports … which are standard requirements in current lift construction,” SLC’s press release noted.
Mr Bennett said the company aims to speed up the process to four floors a day eventually, which would be a “considerable increase in productivity” and “a gamechanger in its field”.
“Aside from the costs and time-efficiency benefits, the easy installation of the lift means that specialised skilled labour will no longer be required. There are currently an estimated 61,000 passenger lifts in Singapore with only an estimated 2,000 lift technicians,” the press release added.
“With this innovation, any person can be trained and certified to be fully qualified to install the elevator and this would reduce, to a certain extent, the labor issue for lift installation and the cost of maintenance.”
Being lightweight also means that composite elevators can do away with counterweights, allowing for bigger elevator cabins.
“Traditional elevators have big sections of counterweights that hang on one side … We’ve done away with that and by removing that section, we now have all the area that was used for the rails and weights to make the elevator cabin,” Mr Bennett explained, noting that the bigger elevator will be an added convenience for people with disabilities.
“With a minimum 1,400mm turning diameter, it is the only elevator designed to enable a sufficient turning radius for wheelchairs. We want this to give dignity and be a friendly elevator for disabled people.”
But the composite elevator falls short in one aspect. According to Mr Bennett, the SLC’s composite elevators will not be suited for high-rise buildings that are more than 20 stories high.
“We are initially setting a target of eight (floors) and that’s why this launch is called 8. When we get better, we’ll work to get higher … but we will never be able to do high-rise elevatorss because the higher and faster you go, the lifts need to be heavier,” he explained, noting that the high-speed elevators installed in Taiwan’s Taipei 101 skyscraper require the attachment of several weights at the bottom.
“Realistically, our elevatorss are a solution for low-rise buildings of less than 20 floors but beyond that, you may need a traditional lift with weights otherwise the ride wouldn’t be comfortable.”