Elevators and Other Musings

I had an interesting day yesterday.  In between all the regular work I  read three different things that brought me to the same conclusion from three different routes.

First, there was an article on Slashdot titled “Engineers Develop ‘Ultrarope’ For World’s Highest Elevator” (here).  The gist of the article was that steel cables could only scale up so far in elevator usage and so as taller buildings were built newer materials for the cables had to be developed.  That led to people reasonably questioning whether the proper course of action is to continue attempting to scale the 100 year old architecture of elevators or to start from scratch with a new method of traction for elevators.  One of the highly rated comments derided the “armchair engineers” in the comment section and tried to make the case that obviously if there were a better way to design elevator systems the engineers who’ve worked on them for so long would have come up with it by now.

I later read something about MakerBot – probably the first popular 3D printer on the market and some of the continued development that they’re doing.

And last night I was reading in “Choose Yourself!” by James Altucher, specifically the chapter titled “It doesn’t take a lot to make $1 Billion”.  The chapter is specifically about Sara Blakely of Spanx fame.  The story is easy to find but the one line summary is that she saw a need and an easy way to fill that need, did the homework and built a company with no debt and no outside investment that’s made her a billionaire in just a few years.  She sold copiers before that and had nothing to do with the hosiery industry.

What I see around me repeatedly is that real innovation often – if not usually – if not always – comes from outside the inner circle of experts in a given field.  I can give so many examples that you would be reading for days (or just giving up at some point) but let’s consider Spanx.  It looks to me like Spanx is a cross between panty hose and a corset. Both have been around a lot longer than me, so why didn’t Hanes or whoever come up with this idea?

How about vacuums?  I have two Neatos that clean my house a couple of times each week.  Before them were the Roombas.  Before Roombas were maids.  Or people who cleaned their own homes.  Why didn’t Hoover come up with a robot vacuum?  I’ll answer that – it’s because Hoover makes a certain kind of vacuum cleaner and they do it well.  And they continually improve their designs.  But it’s rare that a company makes the kind of leap to not only improve on the current design but to say “is there another way to do this?”

Elon Musk is another example.  Let’s look at his innovations.  First, electric cars.  Impressively, the mainline auto industry has been turning out a few models here and there.  But they don’t “get it” in the way that Musk gets it.  He’s building a battery factory because that’s the only way to get enough batteries to supply all the cars he wants to build.  And, let’s face it, the cars he’s building are just more exciting than a Nissan Leaf.  The broader point is, though, that if the companies that make cars based on petrochemical burning engines were thinking about electric cars as seriously as Musk is one of them would have already started building a battery factory.

He’s also into rocketry with Space-X.  Not just rocketry – they’re working on making rockets that take off and land vertically.  That’s a new kind of crazy.  Right now they’re working on making a rocket land on a floating, moving platform in the ocean.  Their first test failed – and they actually expected that – but they are using that failure to learn and improve.  How many companies do you know that actually don’t mind anticipating failure?

Musk is also making a bunch of noise about the “hyperloop”, a mode of transportation that involves a vacuum tube to move stuff (and people perhaps) really fast.

In any of these industries, Musk is an “armchair engineer”.  He didn’t work at Ford, GM, Honda, or any other big car maker before he started his own company.  He didn’t work at Boeing or Lockheed.  He doesn’t own a railroad.

What I’m getting at here isn’t that this is an anomaly – rather, the reason he succeeds in these industries is because he’s not burdened by the weight of knowing how things are supposed to be done, meaning he’s free to write a new book on how to do things now.

Even looking at Roomba and Neato is instructive.  Roombas were cool when they came out in 2002.  They move until they hit something, at which point they change direction and move somewhere else.  They have sensors so that they don’t go down the stairs and include “barriers” so you can easily keep them in one area to clean.

The problem is that the Roomba uses a method kindly called “statistical cleaning”.  What that means is that it moves randomly but the algorithms for “random” are tweaked to make it likely to cover every square inch of a room given time.  It also has a dirt sensor so it knows if it needs to do extra work in a certain area.  I saw one review that said when the Roomba cleans your house it looks like you’ve had a crazy maid vacuum it with tracks going in all directions.

iRobot, the makers of Roomba, have been working on their algorithms since the start and have made them better.  And better.  At some point competitors came along, particularly Mint, which used a “beacon” and actually tried to map rooms out and actually clean them.  Mint was for solid floors, though, and did well for what it did.  iRobot bought them to gain access to the technology they were using.

Then along came Neato in 2010.  The Neato platform is a huge step up from Roomba because the robots don’t randomly move around and don’t require an external “beacon” or any other hardware to guide them.  Instead, they built a really cheap laser rangefinder on a rotating platform into the top of the vacuum.  In simple terms the Neato maps out the room and methodically cleans it.  It maps as it cleans and keeps track of what still needs to be cleaned.  When it’s finished it simply returns to its base and lets you know that its dirt bin needs emptied.  There’s no better comparison of the two methods that I could find than this video.

What’s next in robot vacuums?  I don’t know, but I do know this: it’s unlikely that either iRobot or Neato Robotics will be the company to go there.  They will most likely continue to improve their respective platforms for years to come, though.

All this to say that I believe the architecture of the elevators in the extremely tall buildings being proposed and built need to be envisioned by someone with no baggage and no preconceived notions of how an elevator is supposed to be built or how it’s supposed to work.  I don’t think stronger  and lighter cables are the answer simply because I don’t think cables are the answer, at least not for traction.  Surely there’s a way to make an elevator move up and down quickly in such a way that they don’t need cables at all – rack and pinion, linear motors – I don’t know but I know something is possible.

Getting rid of the cables also makes something else really strange possible – more than one car in a single shaft.  Yeah, weird.  But rethink the elevator.  Imagine that instead of the two-button interface I had the elevator app on my phone that I could use to tell the elevator system what floor I was on and to where I wanted to go.  Then, it could let me know which elevator I needed to get on and it could take care of scheduling the cars to get everybody where they needed to go in the most efficient manner.  (The CEO might also want to give himself priority.)

Anyway, I think the elevator industry is in dire need of a shake up, and I think it’ll only come from outside.

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