Elevator innovation in metro Atlanta could change how buildings rise

Company’s Cobb HQ is a test site for new lift technology that could ‘change the landscaping’ of cities

The AJC gets a behind-the-scenes look inside the TKE building, which can seen by every commuter alon I-285. Video by Ryon Horne and Zachary Hansen

Any Truist Park visitor will undoubtedly notice a structure looming over the ballpark well beyond the heights of a pop fly.

The narrow skyscaper rises 420 feet, and it’s top floor offers views stretching from the North Georgia mountains to downtown Atlanta’s skyline. But the building’s height serves another purpose — the ability to drop elevators at full-speed down test shafts.

TK Elevator, an international engineering firm, opened the tower as its North American headquarters earlier this year to test various lift and escalator technologies. Jon Clarine, TKE’s head of digital services, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the work being done in the $200 million building could change the way people move throughout high-rises.

Most folks think of elevators going in two directions: up and down. But how about from end-to-end of a building, sort of like the turbolift on Star Trek?

“Everything about this building here in Atlanta is about defining and developing the future of the elevator industry,” he said. “And it’s not just the local elevator industry here in Atlanta. It’s global.”

Elevators form the transportation network inside buildings in the same way roads connect neighborhoods, and the concept hasn’t really evolved much since electric elevators were invented in the late 19th century. Changing how fast elevators move, what directions they can go and how they interact with riders is akin to redoing a city’s street grid, and they can change how skyscrapers are designed.

Coda at Tech Square, the Midtown mixed-use tower focused on technology innovation and incubation, was the first building in the country to use TKE’s TWIN elevator system. TWIN uses two independent elevator cars in one shaft. By reducing the number of shafts, developer Portman Holdings could dedicate more space for tenants.

“It allowed us to reduce the core of the building,” said Bill Morrison, Portman executive vice president of construction. More room for tenants also means more potential rent for landlords.

Touchless technologies, which are becoming more commonplace following the COVID-19 pandemic, are also a priority, Clarine said. TKE has intelligent dispatching software called AGILE which are designed to electronically call elevators during high-traffic times. An AGILE system will be installed at Midtown Union by the end of this year.

Clarine said most people may think of elevators in office and apartment buildings, but vertical transportation technologies are ingrained in nearly every multi-story structure. Industrial lifts need to be able to handle thousands of pounds. Parking deck elevators need to work in both sub-freezing temperatures and sweltering summer days. Escalators need to power off if someone begins to fall.

Most of TKE’s test locations are away from urban areas, according to the company’s head of real estate John Anderson. He said choosing Cobb County and the Battery Atlanta was an effort to attract high-skill workers.

“Every place that we went to was out in the middle of nowhere,” he said, adding that they looked throughout North Georgia and the Carolinas. “And we were like, ‘How are we going to get people here. Nobody’s going to come here.’”

TKE also operated a corporate office in Alpharetta, which moved to the Battery to join the new test tower. The buildings house more than 900 employees, Anderson said. The company received $15 million in tax breaks from Cobb as part of the relocation.

TKE’s other projects include connecting robots with elevators, a useful thing for autonomous deliveries. A Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta spokesman said the future Arthur M. Blank Hospital under construction in Brookhaven will have more than 35 elevators, including 12 dedicated to Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR). The hospital will have 90 such robots.

“The AMR system will be used to reduce staff travel time and efficiently distribute materials throughout the hospital, including meals, equipment, medications, linens, trash/recycling, and other supplies,” the company said in an email.

In addition, TKE’s test tower will also feature the first rope-less and sideways-moving elevator system in North America. Called MULTI, the turbolift-style transporter uses a network of magnet systems that suspend elevators in the air, mirroring the technology that allows bullet trains to hover.

Anderson said urban design will change if MULTI becomes successful.

“This is going to change the way buildings look. Not only can you go up as high as you can, but you can also go vertical, horizontal,” Anderson said. “It really does change the landscaping of the city. It’s a game changer.”

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