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Wed 18 Aug 2010 04:00 AM

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Going up

Al-Futtaim Engineering (AFE) Elevator Division GM Syed Shamsul Haq talks about upwards growth in Abu Dhabi, and the latest developments in vertical transportation.

Going up
Going up

Al-Futtaim Engineering (AFE) Elevator Division GM Syed Shamsul Haq talks about upwards growth in Abu Dhabi, and the latest developments in vertical transportation.

There are six divisions within AFE, namely elevators, building products, security and LV systems, scaffolding and formwork, MEP and air-con. Established in 1973, air-con is the oldest division, followed closely by elevators in 1974 when AFE clinched the Hitachi agency. "It was very progressive of us to anticipate the demand for elevators and escalators for high-rise buildings in Dubai, although we could not have anticipated the extent of the construction boom that was to follow," says Shamsul Haq.

The growth of the Elevator Division has chronicled Dubai's development, from the Chambers of Commerce building to Atlantis on Palm Jumeirah. Even though the global financial crisis has had a major impact on the construction industry in Dubai, in particular, Shamsul Haq says there is still work to be had. "Dubai's construction sector is not dead. You have to be selective, but there are good projects still out there." He points to the Elevator Division's ongoing involvement at Hotel JAL Tower and Al Hikma Tower, all on Sheikh Zayed Road, and The Address Hotel at Dubai Mall.

"Dubai is not as it was before, but there is still work. Dubai passed through a period which was a bit unnatural to the extent of there being too much work. Companies had to pass through this phase without really getting to grips with the work that had to be done. So in a sense this is now the time to learn from past experience and prepare, which is how we are approaching it. We are looking at our strengths and weaknesses, and how we can improve upon areas where we are lacking," says Shamsul Haq.

Has the downturn meant the end of the trend of high-rise buildings? "If you look at the bigger picture, at the GCC level, definitely overall there are more high-rises now than there were in 2006. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have a lot of high-rise projects. So the trend will continue," is Shamsul Haq's firm prediction. "It is quite natural to have a construction boom followed by a lull in activity. In one area there will be saturation, and in another area opportunity."

He says Abu Dhabi went through a similar experience of a decline in construction activity, while Dubai was booming. "Dubai is relatively quiet now, while our major activity is in Abu Dhabi. We are supplying 50 elevators and escalators, including many high-speed elevators to Nation Towers on the Corniche, and we also have the Investment Corporation Headquarters coming up. We are also involved at Masdar University," says Shamsul Haq.

Explaining how the division operates, he says it sources products for individual projects according to specific requirements. "We are at the high end of the market, involved with complex and demanding projects, so it is not a cookie-cutter approach whereby we buy 20 elevator kits to fit in here and there. There is a product in that range, but that is for home-style elevators, another market segment.

"Mostly elevators are custom-made for particular projects. Hotels have their own requirements, while shopping malls will have different needs. This is really the ambit of the consultants, but we get involved here as well, assisting them in the design and traffic-analysis stage, determining how many elevators are needed, and what capacity and speeds."

Shamsul Haq says the first question that needs to be addressed is simply: how many elevators will be sufficient? "For the same number of people, for example, depending on the utility of the project, different models, types and speeds of elevators will be required." He cites a recent five-star hotel project in Makkah, Saudi Arabia as to the importance of understanding specific customer needs.

In terms of the actual traffic analysis, the numbers rose slowly in the afternoon and then tapered off in the early evening as customers checked in, and then rose again in the early morning as customers checked out. Now while a five-star hotel in Dubai is comparable to a five-star hotel in Los Angeles, it is totally different in Makkah, where the call to prayer or Azan means the entire hotel has to be evacuated five times a day within a 20 to 30 minute window period.
"If it is not done properly at the design stage, not much can be done later on, as the structure has already been completed. In terms of the Makkah project, the elevator supplier was requested afterwards to supply additional elevators, which posed particular problems in terms of access and optimisation. Thus it is very important to understand the exact nature of the customer's requirements from the outset," says Shamsul Haq.

This implies a very close working relationship with clients. "Our relationship is not a once-off. We always think in terms of the entire lifespan of a project, which could mean serving the same customer for 30 years. We do not sell and then go away. We stay with the customer to ensure a safe, reliable and comfortable service over the long term."

Shamsul Haq maintains "it is the aftersales support that determines the overall quality. Total quality is determined by the product quality, the installation quality and the maintenance quality. The customer's final experience is a combination of all three of these elements. The product has to be well engineered, the installation has to be executed professionally, and proper aftersales maintenance and support have to be provided. That makes up the totality of the customer's experience."

The Elevator Division "has a huge maintenance structure in terms of engineers and technicians, and providing proper training. This is a highly specialised area, which is why we only maintain products that we are the agents for, where we are confident we can provide a service that will let the customer sleep well at night and not have to worry. Some companies do try and maintain other brands. We know the challenges in maintaining and keeping our own elevators in perfect condition, and the technical skills required."

This is also due to the safety-critical nature of elevators. "In our business, safety is absolute. If air-con breaks down, it is uncomfortable but not life-threatening. Therefore we have to ensure our elevators are maintained properly, using genuine parts, and serviced by properly trained professionals." Shamsul Haq says the ideal situation is for elevators not to break down at all, but this is unlikely due to the complexity of the equipment and the demands placed on it.

"We provide preventative maintenance on a monthly basis, which is the normal servicing. At the same time we try to look at things in a more proactive manner by providing predictive maintenance. We do not wait for problems to occur in order to respond. Ideally we like to repair or change things before problems become manifest."

In addition, every problem or breakdown reported is analysed properly in order to ascertain any trends or commonalities. "Sometimes after we analyse two to four calls we will reach a conclusion that this is a type of problem in a particular area. Our focus is on areas related to the technical aspects, which is in our control. We have a sufficient inventory of spare parts because all of our contracts cover comprehensive maintenance services. That means we assume total responsibility, aiming to keep our elevators operational 24/7/365," says Shamsul Haq.

In terms of major projects in remote locations, the Elevator Division will have a standby team in order to cut down on the response time to any problems. "We had such standby teams at Atlantis and Festival City, for example, as part of the overall AFE presence on these projects. We were able to respond within ten minutes, whereas the industry norm is two to three hours. In fact, we recently received a request from a client asking us to confirm a response time of six hours, and we said we are much better than that ..."

What are some of the latest trends in vertical transportation? Shamsul Haq says that energy efficiency and green buildings are having a significant impact. "In terms of elevators getting old, and their energy efficiency not being what could be expected, we can propose modernisation for certain brands. We do not replace the entire elevator; instead we replace some parts and the control systems basically, so a more efficient system is in place at the end. All the world-class brands now have variable voltage, variable frequency (VVVF) type controls, while regeneration is also possible with some elevators, whereby some of the energy consumed is put back into the system."

Another trend is double-decker elevators. "Buildings are designed generally with the same floor heights, so a double-decker elevator will have a car on one floor and the second on another. The same machine is pulling two cars; one addresses odd-numbered floors and the other the even-numbered floors. Previously it was technically difficult for double-decker elevators to accommodate flexibility in floor heights, but Hitachi and some other manufacturers now have this capability. In future there is likely to be such innovations as wireless controls as well and a trend for higher speeds; Hitachi has perfected design of the fastest elevator in the world with a speed 1080 m/min elevator (18 m/sec).

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