Sideways Elevators? ThyssenKrupp Is Turning Sci-Fi into Reality

If elevator design was governed by a legal code, law number one would state that elevator shafts must be perfectly vertical. Law number two would state that elevator cars must be attached to a suitably safe system of cables and counterweights. And law number three would state that any elevator that violates the first two laws must be off-limits to passengers until said violations have been corrected.

Good thing elevators aren’t governed by such a rigid code — or, if they are, that no one told the engineering whizzes at ThyssenKrupp about it. That’s because the German industrial conglomerate is hard at work on an elevator that appears (at first, second, and all subsequent glance(s))to break the immutable rules of elevator construction. Here’s a look at ThyssenKrupp’s so-called cableless elevator — and what it could mean for the future of architecture and urban design.

ThyssenKrupp’s Big Innovation

According to FastCompany, ThyssenKrupp’s new elevator — dubbed the Multi, ostensibly for “multi-directional” — lacks the high-strength steel cables that support virtually every elevator currently in operation.

Instead, the Multi uses a magnetic propulsion system similar to that found in maglev trains. This reduces friction and lurching, as well as one of the most important limitations to elevator shaft height: the weight of the steel cables that support the elevator. At a certain point, the cables are simply too heavy to support themselves in the configuration necessary to facilitate vertical travel.

What It Means for the Future of City-Building

ThyssenKrupp is building a massive, hollow tower in Rottweil, Germany, for the purposes of testing the Multi. The first runs are scheduled for 2016. If they’re successful, the Multi could enter service within a decade.

The Multi has two game-changing advantages. First, it basically removes height restrictions for supertall buildings, allowing elevator shafts to stretch to a mile or longer. (The longest is currently less than 1,700 feet.) Secondly, it allows for horizontal movement — the vehicle can simply switch from a vertical to a horizontal shaft at will. Taken together, these advantages could translate to taller, skinnier buildings; more effective intra-building transport; fewer elevator shafts overall; and, eventually, the development of a localized “interbuilding” transport system within urban cores.

Potential Industrial Applications

It’s also important to note that there’s no reason ThyssenKrupp’s cableless elevator system can’t be applied in non-passenger settings, such as raw materials transport and other industrial applications. As it currently stands, transporting substantial amounts of material in traditional factory and warehouse settings requires a bi-modal solution: carts or trams to handle horizontal transport and elevators or lift-like devices to handle vertical transport.

Cableless elevators could neatly solve this problem, and dramatically shrink the amount of space needed for transport applications in the process, using bi-directional shafts that go directly to active sites and minimize the need for transfers.

Bottoms Up…Or Sideways?

Ready to buy stock in ThyssenKrupp? So are thousands of other elevator buffs. Although it’ll take multiple leaps of faith from a multitude of building owners and urban planners to turn this innovation into an everyday reality, the mere concept is worth celebrating. And soon enough, you might be able to celebrate by actually riding in a cableless elevator. Bottoms up — or sideways — to that!