Going up? Good luck.
A Columbia University study found that New York office workers spent a collective 5.9 years riding in elevators–and 16.6 years waiting for elevators. And that was just in 2010.
Some of that downstairs time is thanks to out-of-service elevators under repair, but if we can socially engineer highway flow, why not do the same for elevators? Both can be helped by connecting elevators to the cloud and making them smarter, say the practical people at the German mechanical products company ThyssenKrupp. So not long ago ThyssenKrupp partnered with Microsoft’s Azure enterprise cloud platform to introduce the MAX, an elevator extension to bring the technology into the Internet of Things. With MAX installed, ThyssenKrupp says in its press release, New York City office workers could get back a cumulative eight years of free time.
ThyssenKrupp is launching MAX today, extending offers to install the system on elevators it services (both the 1.2 million ThyssenKrupp-built elevators worldwide and third-party elevators). At an announcement today at a midtown Manhattan Westin hotel, Andreas Schierenbeck, CEO of ThyssenKrupp, said it has “a couple hundred test installations in Seattle, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain.” That could change: The company services elevators in major skyscrapers all over the world, including One World trade Center in New York City, the Metro Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany, to name a few. In the 18-month launch period the company aims to connect some 180,000 units in the U.S. and Europe before becoming available to 80% of elevators across all continents in two years. And if conversion happens, it will happen fast: MAX can be installed in about 15 minutes. ThyssenKrupp is playing the long game: When 70% of the world’s population lives in cities by 2050, any moment we can shave off commuting is another we can spend living.
Instead of delivering a brand-new elevator, ThyssenKrupp’s MAX is a box that costs “less than an iPad” and attaches to existing elevators. The MAX keeps tabs on the elevator’s vitals so it can send maintenance calls when it senses parts wearing out and, once enough data is collected, make data models that set up maintenance calls before parts break. That maintenance data is routed through Microsoft’s Azure platform, but so is usage data: In time, ThyssenKrupp’s own data scientists will create algorithms that anticipate usage to streamline elevator usage and eliminate elevator blockage at rush hour.
Sound too dramatic for the humble elevator? Consider that elevators are the most-used transportation system–period. Those 16.6 years New Yorkers spent in elevators in 2010 are hours they aren’t working or living their lives. By tracking elevator usage, patterns emerge, and building managers can change usage to minimize time wasted.
“If you have a high-rise commercial building and everyone starts at 8 a.m., everyone is overloading the elevator banks,” says Schierenbeck. “You could set half an elevator bank of six units to go to company A and have the other six go to company B or even schedule lunchtime differently. It’s a little like the congested parts of cities and in highways, where smaller traffic lights let one or two cars onto the highway at rush hour. It’s the same concept.”
The elevator industry is conservative in its engineering values, and rightfully so for an industry charged with safe vertical travel of millions of humans every day, says Schierenbeck. But that means technological progress comes slow. Aside from newer elevators that only require punching in numbers in the lobby, elevators have been relatively unchanged for more than a century. Preventing elevator downtime and reducing travel time by connecting elevators to the Internet of Things is a big leap forward.
It’s not easy to convince a conservative industry to evolve, says Schierenbeck, and a lot of resistance is internal: ThyssenKrupp pushed its workforce into culturally adapting to the new influx of repair data and trained them to understand it. But the first step was understanding the data itself. ThyssenKrupp went to several tech firms, none of whom could make sense of the years of elevator data ThyssenKrupp brought with them, until Schierenbeck chatted with Steve Ballmer at the opening of Microsoft’s Berlin office and the partnership was hatched.
That’s when Kevin Turner jumped on board. As chief operating officer of Microsoft Azure, Turner lent ThyssenKrupp data scientists to help develop a model to make sense of ThyssenKrupp’s elevator data. The end result is the MAX system, which instantly calls for maintenance when a part breaks–and once enough data has been collected to jump-start the machine learning angle, MAX will alert maintenance to check on a part that might break soon. Once that machine learning spins up, ThyssenKrupp believes that MAX will cut elevator downtime due to maintenance down by 50%.
“Machine learning is the real secret sauce,” says Turner. “Predictive analytics let us know exceptions. But we no longer want to report exceptions–we want to prevent them.”
IoT hasn’t reached elevators partially because they’ve lasted so long. It would be easier to iterate if elevators wore out quickly, but elevators aren’t smartphones. With 50- or 60-year life spans, ThyssenKrupp decided that their MAX technology must be able to retrofit old elevators instead of requiring companies to buy wholly new elevators. And even if they’re upgrading elevators they didn’t build, retrofitting elevators is still a booming field: There are 20,000 new elevators installed in the U.S. every year. China, meanwhile, is expecting 500,000 new elevators every year, says Schierenbeck.
ThyssenKrupp’s net income spiked to nearly 200 million euros in fiscal year 2014, following considerable restructuring of the company. It’s unclear at this point how, if at all, MAX will impact its bottom line.
For its part, Microsoft is excited to bring an old industry into the IoT age, proving that new markets can be found with legacy products that don’t outwardly seem ripe for digital integration. If IoT can support an industrial stalwart like elevators, why not old cars or airplanes that still have decades of life ahead of them?
“The more you can do to improve efficiency, you give more time to people,” says Schierenbeck. “It’s that simple.”