Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:54 AM CST – China

Society

Escalator and Elevator Industry

GOING DOWN

China’s elevator and escalator industry has witnessed robust growth in recent years, but a shortage of professional maintenance technicians and an abundance of manufacturing shortcuts has increased safety risks and led to a number of fatal accidents, causing some to question the future of the market

Top: 31-year-old Xiang Liujuan manages to lift her son to safety before being killed by an escalator in a shopping mall in Jingzhou, Hubei Province, July 26, 2015 Photo by IC

A worker on an elevator assembly line Photo by Feng Li

Ms Liu tries not to take the elevator anymore. Instead, the Beijing resident climbs seven flights of stairs several times a day to get to her apartment. This was a recent change and had nothing to do with physical exercise – it was for physical safety.

“There have been a number of gruesome elevator and escalator accidents this year,” she said. “I can make do with the climb every day. I try not to take the elevator if I have the time and energy to take the stairs.”

She is not the only one to make this change. In a recent online NewsChina survey, 71 percent of the 512 respondents said they get nervous when taking the elevator, and 15 percent indicated that they “try not to take the elevator.”

In the first half of 2015, at least 30 elevator- and escalator-related accidents were reported across the country, resulting in 27 fatalities. On July 26, a surveillance video that showed a woman who died after being dragged into an escalator mechanism went viral online. Xiang Liujuan, 31, was with her two-year-old son at a shopping mall in Jingzhou, Hubei Province, when she stepped onto a loose panel at the top of an escalator. She fell through, just managing to lift her son to safety before she was killed.

According to China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), there were 3.6 million elevators and escalators in China by the end of 2014, with that number rising by 20 percent year-on-year. What’s more, China has the most elevators and escalators of any country worldwide, the highest annual production volume and the highest rate of growth due to the country’s rapid urbanization. The two cities with the largest number of elevators in the world are Shanghai and Beijing.

On September 9, 2013, during an elevator safety promotion event, AQSIQ deputy chief Chen Gang told the media that China’s elevator-related accident rate is 0.15 per 10,000 elevators, and the mortality rate is 0.11, close to that of developed countries. Nevertheless, safety risks abound because of negligent maintenance, vicious competition in the maintenance industry and inadequate testing.

“Rapid installation and low-quality maintenance are common across the country. The Jingzhou accident was bound to happen,” Tang Lixin, professor at Yangtze University’s School of Management, told NewsChina.

Maintenance

Statistics from the China Elevator Association, whose purview also includes escalators and moving walkways, show that about 16 percent of the country’s elevator-related accidents are caused by problems during manufacturing, 24 percent are due to improper installation and 60 percent are because of inadequate maintenance or usage issues.

About 150,000 elevators and escalators in China have been in use for more than 15 years. According to a May 2015 survey by AQSIQ, 7 percent of these older machines are at a high risk of causing accidents, particularly those used at tourist attractions, schools, big residential communities and shopping malls. No elevator or escalator over 15 years old that was surveyed at a tourist attraction met safety standards, and only 10 percent of those in schools were up to code.

“A number of factors need to be considered before installing an elevator or escalator, including expected passenger flow, load capacity, fire safety and physical space,” Miao Busheng, chairman of the Beijing Elevator Commerce Committee, told NewsChina. “Nowadays, China’s relevant regulations are not specific enough, leaving loopholes for some real estate developers to cut costs by installing fewer elevators.” Miao added that this leads to overuse of the equipment, which increases damage to elevator and escalator parts and significantly shortens service life.

Chinese safety regulations require elevators and escalators to pass an annual inspection and receive regular maintenance every two weeks, but many maintenance technicians and other workers charged with their management are not aware of these safety measures. Some property management departments hire less expensive maintenance companies that cut corners by only checking on machines after they’ve already stopped working.

“Many [maintenance companies] are actually repairing elevators under the banner of ‘maintenance,’” said Zhang Hongwei, head of the elevator department in the AQSIQ, during a recent seminar on elevator safety. He added that China has a shortage of professional maintenance workers because of high training costs, lengthy training periods and the fact that workers in the industry are underpaid.

“The most experienced installation and maintenance workers have mostly become heads of their own enterprises,” said Yao Yongqi, a former salesman who is now the head of an elevator manufacturer in the Fenhu Development Zone in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.

At least 20,000 additional maintenance workers and 10,000 more installation technicians are needed annually to keep up with the growing number of elevators being installed nationwide, but official statistics show that fewer than 10,000 total people entered those professions in 2014. In 2012, Canny Elevator partnered with Changshu Institute of Technology in Jiangsu Province to open China’s first undergraduate elevator manufacturing and maintenance program. It enrolls 20 students every year.

Manufacturing

Official statistics show that in 2014, 550,000 elevators and escalators were assembled in China, about two-thirds of them under foreign brands. Among the remaining 200,000 or so, about 160,000 were made in Suzhou, mainly in the city’s Fenhu Development Zone. Fenhu is home to more than 100 elevator and elevator parts enterprises, including 11 factories capable of producing entire units on their own.

During a trip to Fenhu, a NewsChina reporter found that, with the exception of the few large companies who manufacture an elevator’s main components, many enterprises use a business model that is similar to that of cell phone manufacturers — they outsource the production of many core parts, including machinery and control systems, and only make the elevator car itself on their own assembly line before selling the entire product to customers.

“Some elevator enterprises do not even have a single assembly line, but purchase all the parts from other manufacturers before assembling and selling the whole unit to customers,” Yao told our reporter. “In fact, they provide nothing but the installation service.”

Testing

The first things people see as they approach Fenhu are tall, thin buildings that tower over the factories — testing towers that are used to check the finished products. Before installing elevators in their final locations, enterprises are supposed to give them a trial run. The height of the tower is often viewed as a sign of the strength of the company that manages it.

Yao said that as a matter of fact, in order to cut costs and increase productivity, many enterprises rarely use their test towers to test elevators. Instead, their main function is to display products for potential customers.

In 2013, AQSIQ stipulated that every whole-unit elevator enterprise can only earn a necessary manufacturing license after it has constructed a testing tower. “A company needs at least 20 million yuan (US$3.14m) in capital to apply for an A-level elevator production permit, and at least 6 million yuan (US$940,000) to build a testing tower,” Yao said. “As a result, many enterprises have less to spend on management, quality improvement and after-sales service.” He added that this has led to a new phenomenon: As long as an enterprise has the money to erect a testing tower, it can most likely also get a production permit.

Competition

According to official statistics, 600 domestic elevator manufacturers exist across the country, but the nine foreign brands with outlets in China produce two-thirds of the market share. At present, there are four listed domestic enterprises that hold a quarter of the market, while the remaining companies vie for the scraps. The average sales volume for those smaller enterprises is 200 units per year. The smallest one sold 20 sets in 2014.

In Yao’s opinion, this year is a turning point for China’s elevator and escalator industry, because of slowdown in the real-estate industry and the well-publicized elevator- and escalator-related accidents. Big enterprises will become bigger and smaller ones will struggle to survive. It is expected that at least 50 of these manufacturers will shut down by the end of 2015.

“There are at least 77 significant elevator businesses in Suzhou, but in fact, seven would be enough,” said one Fenhu factory director. “This year, a lot of the small ones are doomed to be knocked out.”

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