One sunny Saturday last month, Hitachi Ltd., Japan’s largest electronics maker, made headlines when it hosted a rare tour of its spanking new elevator-testing tower — the world’s tallest — at its sprawling facility in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture.

The 213.5-meter “G1 Tower,” which took two years and ¥6 billion to build, houses nine elevator shafts designed for various tests. And, as Hitachi staffers explained that day, it symbolizes the firm’s ambition to achieve “global No. 1” status in its elevator products and technologies.

How exactly does Hitachi intend to take that top spot?

According to company engineers present that day, they are determined to develop the world’s fastest elevator, which would rise at 1,080 meters per minute with a load of up to 5 tons (equivalent to around 70 people). The tower’s technological contributions, it is hoped, will also advance improvements in safety, efficiency, comfort and the environmental friendliness of Hitachi’s elevators.

While the soaringly sleek white tower with nine internal levels is definitely a landmark in its own right — being by far the tallest structure in the area — it has been virtually offlimits to nonemployees and nonclients since its completion this April.

Access was also limited during our tour — whose participants included politicians, local business leaders and the media — with the company citing the many commercial secrets incorporated into the tower. Consequently, we were allowed to take pictures only from the outside and from the observation floor on the eighth level, at 180 meters above ground, with its panoramic views of, well, houses, rice paddies and all the rest. Anything else inside the tower was strictly offlimits for photography. To get up to the observation floor, we took a squeaky clean elevator whose ascent rate, of 240 meters per minute, wasn’t nearly as fast as I’d dreamed of. Nevertheless, it was a smooth hop. When we disembarked, we were confronted with an array of museumlike information panels explaining in words and charts some of the tower’s patented technologies.

Talking to the engineers there revealed how much more is involved in elevator technologies than just speed and capacity.

“I actually think the competition for speed has leveled off,” explained Yasuhiko Tashima, a senior engineer in charge of building the tower. “I think the bigger focus these days is on how comfortable you can make an elevator ride.”

While Hitachi aims at winning contracts in the Middle East and China, where skyscrapers are on the up and up, the engineers are busy inventing and refining technologies to address such problems as vibration and riders’ ear blockage.

To counter ear problems caused by pressure changes during rapid ascents and descents, for example, the company has come up with a way to gently adjust the air pressure in the elevator to eliminate the problem. As for vibration problems, the engineers have developed what they call an “active guide” system that uses sensors to monitor the lateral vibration of rails on which elevator cars move and then apply appropriate pressure on the rails to balance out the forces. Because of its tremendous height, staff explained, this new elevator testing tower enables accurate simulation rests and data analysis of such systems for even more lofty structures.

Marketing is another big reason to build such a standout elevator testing tower. “We once developed a high-speed elevator that could run at up to 810 meters per minute, but we lost out in the bidding process — in part due to sales reasons,” confessed Tomomichi Shiobara, another veteran Hitachi engineer who led the company’s presentation that day.

“The lack of an R&D facility (for high-speed elevators) back then was one reason we lost, I think.”

And the “wow factor”?

Contacted afterward, Satoshi Fujita, a professor of mechanical engineering at Tokyo Denki University, who also chairs an elevator-accreditation committee, said that manufacturers in the last few decades have rushed to build new testing towers — each time topping the height of others’ — so they could bask in a moment of “We are No. 1 in the world!” glory. That is until someone else overtakes them soon afterward.

Fujita said the competition began in the 1990s, and that the tower that really kicked off the race was a 150-meter-plus structure built in 1997 in the city of Fuchu, western Tokyo, by the Toshiba Elevator and Building Systems Corp.

A main rival of Hitachi, Toshiba, won the contract to install the world’s fast-moving elevator (rising at 1,010 meters per minute / 60 kph) in the 508-meter-high Taipei 101 Tower that opened to the public on Dec. 31, 2004. Then a year later in 1998, Nippon Otis Elevator Company, the Japanese subsidiary of the U.S.-based world-leader in elevator/escalator manufacturing, completed its own testing tower near Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture — at 154 meters, just edging Toshiba’s in height.

Then came Fujitech, Japan’s No. 4 elevator maker, which in 2006 erected a 170-meter monolith in the middle of rice paddies in Shiga Prefecture — shrewdly sited right by a JR Shinkansen line so passengers could gawk in awe. But it, too, was soon dwarfed by “the world’s tallest tower,” built by Mitsubishi Electric Corp. in 2007, which soared to 173 meters in the city of Inazawa, Aichi Prefecture.

By then, these towers had come to play a very important role in the marketing of elevators, Fujita said.

“The (Inazawa) facility has a showroomlike function, where potential clients are brought in. While they do tests on the site, it also has a history of elevator manufacturing on display.”

So the Hitachi tower’s fame as the world’s tallest could be short-lived. In fact, South Korea’s Hyundai Elevator announced in April that it would soon unveil the world’s fastest elevator, running at a speed of 1,080 meters per minute — beating Toshiba’s world record at Taipei 101, and realizing exactly the same speed as Hitachi is aiming for.

But perhaps the biggest challenge in elevator technology these days is neither speed nor height.

Fujita, an expert on seismic base-insulating techniques for minimizing the impact of earthquake jolts on high-rise buildings, pointed to a new risk to elevators: long-period earthquake ground motions (LPGMs).

Very little was known about these postquake slow jolts until a few years ago, as they are relatively minor on the scale of seismic events.

However, LPGMs — which travel several hundred kilometers over a period of 60 or 70 seconds — have come to be recognized as damaging elevators in high-rises in particular, Fujita explained. In fact, one of the elevator cables in a shaft at Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in central Tokyo caused a fire on the 51st floor in April 2007 when it scraped against other components as the high-rise was swayed by LPGMs from a major temblor far away in Niigata Prefecture.

“Current building laws (in Japan) have no provision for such quakes,” Fujita said. “And yet elevators in high-rises are likely to be hit pretty hard by them.”

Clearly, in the high-stakes world of elevator technology, ever loftier testing towers are here to stay as engineers strive to meet constantly rising design demands.

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