The room was filled with the whirring and whizzing of a 3D printer. A few engineers huddled in a corner, looking on as a sculpture took shape before their eyes. The sculpture was of a peculiar kind: an elevator car. The 3D-printed elevator car has arrived, and it looks nothing short of stunning.
Elevate - Joint project by Schindler Group and MX3D
Who said elevator couldn’t be art pieces? ‘Fast’, ‘reliable’, ‘convenient’ – those words are usually used to describe elevators. ‘Artistic’, on the other hand, hardly ever makes the list. But what if technology and art didn’t have to be mutually exclusive? What if we managed to marry both?
While 3D metal printing – also known as ‘additive manufacturing’ – is a novel technology that pushes the boundaries of what is technically possible, the idea of fusing art and engineering is nothing new, says Oliver Simmonds, a Principal Engineer within Schindler’s New Technologies unit.
"When I look at old machines, they weren’t just purely technical objects driven solely by optimization," says Oliver. "They often had artistic features that were purely esthetical. With additive manufacturing, we have now the possibility to create structures that are not only highly optimized but also visually appealing."
And pleasing to the eye it is: the 3D-printed elevator car is a real head turner. The plain metal panels usually making up the sides of the elevator car have given way to an intricate, delicate structure: a tangled web of leafless branches that would fit right into a Tim Burton film.
Although pushing the boundaries of esthetics in elevator design is a rather positive side effect, the project’s main focus was to create a highly optimized structure using topology optimization. "We wanted to see if producing elevator cars that are lighter and that used less material was possible," said Oliver.
Schindler teamed up with MX3D, a Dutch start-up specialized in 3D metal printing, which had made a name for itself applying 3D printing technology and topology optimization in automotive and maritime projects.
Topology optimization is about achieving the most efficient design. "Essentially, you look at an object and lots of it is superfluous material," explains Gijs van der Velden, CEO of MX3D. "The idea is to whittle that object down to its bare essentials."
At a time when buildings must be designed for high performance, the quest for a lighter and more energy-efficient elevator car took on added importance.
The benefits of a lighter elevator car are many-fold: less material means, of course, reduced production costs. But it also has obvious sustainability benefits: a lighter elevator cabin requires less energy to produce. Once in operation, it is also much more energy efficient.
So, when can we expect to see one in operation? "Not for a little while," says Oliver. "Metal printing remains still to this day a slow and expansive production method."
The partnership with MX3D is just one of many that Schindler has struck with external partners to support innovation in all its forms – and to develop the elevator technology of tomorrow.