Tuesday 21 February 2012

Dunbar and Boardman is the Consultants Voice

This year Dunbar and Boardman are taking up residency in as the Consultants Voice in Elevation Magazine. At the end of 2011 Mick Watts retired from Dunbar and Boardman  having spent the last fifty years working in the Lift industry. We asked him to write a retrospective piece on his professional life.

In the mid 1970’s to early 1980’s I designed random logic and microprocessor lift control systems and in that period I met with various Lift Consultants.  So I thought (erroneously as it happens) I had a pretty good idea of what a Lift Consultant did.  When I joined Dunbar and Boardman I quickly realised that I didn’t know the half of it and was fortunate indeed to have tuition from those at the top of the profession.  In common with many people with a lift engineering background I tended to assume that most people were only interested in what makes a lift go up and down but in the real world I could not have been further from the truth.  Developers want advice on how to spend the minimum amount of cash necessary to achieve an acceptable level of service in a new building.  They rarely understand the complexities of lift engineering (and why should they!!) and usually seek the most cost effective solution.  The Lift Consultant uses his expertise and experience to achieve that aim.

Coming into Lift Consultancy (delete “exclusively”) from a lift manufacturing/engineering and R&D background, it was rather disconcerting to discover these shortcomings.  My experience as a control system designer generally speaking, meant that contact with the Client was usually via a third party and then only if there was a need to refine the software.  This rarely happened so the expectation was that generally everyone was happy with the finished product.  I now realise that the notion that the customer always gets what he paid for is rather naive.

In the worst case scenario, unless a Lift Consultant is on the scene, customers may be faced with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude from some Lift Contractors.  In short, they may put their own technical proposals ahead of the operational requirements of the Client and the timely employment of a Lift Consultant may be the best means by which to avoid this type of problem.

I am reminded of a LEIA conference where around 150 associate members were gathered to discuss the latest lift codes and standards.  The after dinner speaker began by saying he hardly dare mention the fact or bring himself to utter the ‘C’ word but ... he had noticed “there was a Consultant in our midst”.  Obviously this was a little bit tongue in cheek and part of the banter used to gain the attention of the dozy delegates but there is little doubt that some Lift Contractors, usually those who try to cut corners, have used an entirely different ‘C’ word to describe Consultants who rightly insist that the work is carried out to meet their specification.

How does a prospective developer ensure the finished building will be what he requires? Developers obviously want to keep costs to a minimum. Architects, maybe because lifts are considered to be low value components (in percentage terms) compared to the total building cost, may use less experienced staff for the task of shoe horning the lifts into the building.  Because an efficient lift system will be fundamental to the overall working of the finished building, due regard needs to be taken of the size, speed and grouping of the lifts.  Shaft sizes and layout are therefore crucial so it is important that a Lift Consultant is appointed as early as possible in a building project.  The size and location shafts and pit depths need to be determined early in the design process to ensure that they can accept any Lift Contractors standard products. There are many obvious and well recorded pitfalls (no pun intended) if an architect doesn’t provide correctly dimensioned shafts and pits.

The Lift Consultant is there to ensure the customer gets what best suits the application and to advise what is available in the marketplace.  They are able to offer a ‘cradle to grave’ approach to the life of the lift installation.  High tech solutions with more than one lift in a single shaft, double decking and/or DSC need to be discussed at the building design stage to ensure the most efficient and cost effective solution.  However, high tech solutions of this type often prevent the option of an alternative maintenance contractor.  In an ideal world, the manufacturer should maintain his own equipment.  Commercially this can be tricky since control of availability and/or artificially high costs of spare parts, expertise of the workforce etc. often lead to escalation of maintenance prices.  Long term maintenance contracts are essential in this situation.

Codes and Standards
Back in what some may term ‘the good old days’ where there were a number of UK lift manufacturers, everyone in the industry worked to the British Standard lift code and tried their utmost to make the best lifts in the world.  Apprentices were taught by master craftsmen and learned first hand about every aspect of the components that went into a lift. 
No one would ever think of ‘watering down’ lift code content; in fact if anything the UK lift industry has continually worked to improve standards.  Contrast this with the way mainland Europe treats compliance with the current and proposed EN lift codes.

I have come to realise that there is a fundamental difference between the UK and the rest of the EU when it comes to implementation of codes, standards and legislation.  The UK will wholeheartedly embrace any new EU legislation and enforce it with traditional zeal.  In contrast, the key players in the rest of Europe tend to do the least possible to comply and occasionally bend the rules or prevaricate to delay implementation.

Recent evidence of this was their inability to implement the EN81 AMD3 “protection against unintended car movement” by the original CEN deadline date, resulting in a 6 months extension beyond the 18 month implementation period.  It also seems to me that there has been a missed opportunity to really improve safety of a lift while the doors are open, as the 1200mm movement (thus giving 800 - 1000mm clearance to the floor or lintel) allowed by the code is in my view excessive.  With modern technology it could have been easy to restrict movement to 300mm or less thus preventing the risk of potentially fatal crushing.

It is perhaps time we realised our national psyche is diametrically opposed to that of mainland Europe.  Should we impose our British Standards on any product being marketed in the UK in a similar manner to the German TŰV?

It seems that continental Europe have fully embraced the principle of a shorter lifespan and cost reduced lift design but this does not gel particularly well with current UK expectations.

There are now concerns about the ever decreasing longevity of electronic components and lack of backward compatibility.  A colleague in New Zealand recently advised that his company had taken a decision not to use microprocessor based controllers if they could build a relay based equivalent, because spare parts were so difficult to obtain; even on 10 year old equipment.

There are examples of UK developers who are also beginning to rebel against multinational lift companies that make it difficult for competitors to maintain their equipment or obtain spare parts.  There needs to be action on the part of controller manufacturers to ensure replacement components are available for at least 15 years or any replacement is compatible.

Worldwide Variations
Historically in the UK we have built lifts to last.  Indeed it is not unusual to have 50 year old lifts that are still working as well as the day they were installed.  What we failed to realise is that outside the UK the criteria were vastly different. The Express Lift Company exported lifts all over the world and I was fortunate to act as troubleshooter for the engineering division.  I remember being asked by the General Manager of GEC Sendirian Berhad when I was in Kuala Lumpur in 1991 why he should buy one Express lift in a crate when he could get two Gold Star lifts fully installed for the same price.  Naively I said they must be rubbish.  He took me on a very pleasant car journey to show them to me.  When we inspected them I was really quite shocked.  The installation was first class and the ride quality was spectacularly good.  Yes they were cheap and cheerful but had been cost reduced in all the right areas – the door gear being particularly robust and I was reduced to stuttering “well they won’t last for 40 years”.  He then patiently explained that their buildings were only designed to last around 15 years so there was little point in having a lift that would outlast the building.  Sadly Express ultimately paid the price for marketing over engineered products.

When I was in Hong Kong in the early 1980’s I became aware of a strategy for lift procurement, installation and lifetime maintenance that could benefit all parties.  This involved a guarantee that whoever installed a lift would continue to maintain it over its lifetime on a long term contract - a situation that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve in the UK.  At that time, it was very successful in Hong Kong as the lift could be installed for an exceptionally low price to the developer (albeit at an initial loss to the lift company) with the cost of maintenance (assuming good reliability and minimum breakdowns) planned to ensure break even point in around ten years.  Thereafter the lift company could reap the rewards.  Naturally this meant that the lift equipment had to be of extremely high quality and durability.  Sadly, this long term approach to finance is alien to the UK where last month’s bottom line figures are seemingly all that matters.

It follows that each nation appears to have its own criteria for lift equipment, both in terms of equipment longevity and lift performance.  Unfortunately, as part of the EU, the UK is inexorably being dragged kicking and screaming ever closer to the European preference for very low cost products of questionable lifespan.  This is precisely why Lift Consultants need to put a peg in the ground and specify equipment more suited to the longer lifespan and robustly engineered equipment favoured by their UK client base.  It must also be recognised however that in this life you only get what you pay for, so this preference will come at a cost.

Hopefully UK plc will eventually come to recognise the importance of apprenticeships and these will be available for school leavers who could be encouraged to take up a trade rather than automatically being directed towards university.

The LEIA distance learning courses and MSc in Lift Engineering are worthy examples of what is requires to get people up to speed and/or enhance their knowledge.
In this way it may be possible for the UK to again become world leaders in lift technology.

Mick Watts