Dr. Albert So on Elevators and Technology

After the publication of the second volume in the Educational Focus series, Educational Focus, Volume 2, I (HV) interviewed editor Dr. Albert So (AS) about the book and his perspective on the elevator industry. Dr. So is an executive board member and scientific advisor of the International Association of Elevator Engineers (IAEE). He is also the academic secretary for the IAEE HK-China Branch and honorary visiting professor of the University of Northampton in the U.K. He serves on the Technical Advisory Group of Elevator World, Inc., and is based in Seattle.

FOCUSVOL2HV: How did you become involved in the writing and production of Educational Focus, Volume 2?
AS: I have been associated with Elevator World (EW) for more than 10 years as the international correspondent, and I contributed technical articles to EW from time to time. Starting early 2014, I had been engaged as a contract writer of EW by monthly contributing technical articles and taking the lead to prepare two new volumes of Educational Focus. As a matter of fact, years ago, I was one loyal reader and user of Educational Focus, Volume 1, for my courses in the university. It was natural for me to help compile Volume 2 and then Volume 3. By August of 2014, I was further invited to become a member of the Technical Advisory Group of EW, and have been involved in reviewing articles submitted to EW.

HV: How does the book benefit readers?
AS: EW is full of articles for different categories of readers, including technical, regulatory, commercial and case studies etc. Education Focus has been prepared for readers who are more interested in new technical knowledge. Educational Focus, Volume 1, was published more than a decade ago; meanwhile, during the past decade, elevator technology has seen a quantum leap, while numerous good quality articles had been published in EW. Educational Focus, Volume 2, and the potential Volume 3 help gather selected articles of similar nature and categorize them under appropriate groups for easy reference by technical readers. CEUs are given to readers who have done the homework, and who then successfully attempt the assessment examinations afterward. One major difference between Volume 1 and Volume 2 is the addition of the “Tutorial Sections,” which help readers understand more about difficult concepts and content inside every article.

HV: How did you go about the writing process? How did you decide on the articles, organization and introductory and supplementary content?
AS: I must admit that the majority of the writing process was done by the authors of the original articles, not by me. My role was to nominate topics in groups and then search through EW editions of the past 10 years and select representative articles which were then approved by Managing Editor Angela Baldwin and Editor Ricia Sturgeon-Hendrick. Selected articles fit the groups well, where they are useful to professionals and of high quality, but not too academic nor too trivial to the industry. Then, I added “supplementary tutorials” to each article by assuming the professor’s role, and then prepared some new learning enforcement questions — which were different from those written by the original authors — and, finally, designed the assessment examination questions.

HV: What did you enjoy about the process?
AS: Although I have been a regular reader of EW for the past 25 years, I usually go through interesting articles quickly by picking up the main concept only. Through this process, I was given a chance — actually a mission, in fact  to read through every relevant article cautiously and conscientiously, not just once but usually at least twice. By doing that, I was able to discover many more important messages beyond the general concept. And this is indeed an invaluable opportunity for my own continual professional development. Digesting the details rather than the concept alone by readers should be the main objective of the publication of this Educational Focus Series by EW. And it is not easy for a reader, even an expert sometimes, to thoroughly understand every sentence in a particular technical article. That’s why “Tutorials” are needed for further explanation and assistance, but they are certainly not comprehensive  a big gap for improvement.

HV: What part of the project was challenging?
AS: Since every article inside the Educational Focus carries CEUs, and CEUs are only awarded by readers’ satisfactorily attempting the assessment examination questions, the most challenging work of the project was, of course, the design of the examination questions. Questions should not be too straight forward nor too difficult. All answers to these questions should be readily found inside the article without any need for external referencing. Hence, questions could be a little bit tricky but not profound. When going through the selected articles, readers are expected to pay high attention to details, digest the content and think about the questions.

Elevator systems will evolve from one-dimensional to two-dimensional and, finally, to 3D.

HV: What are some of the important changes you have seen in the vertical-transportation industry?
AS: I can see two obvious changes over the past decade. First, as buildings are getting taller and taller, elevator design is becoming more challenging. But, that is good news to the industry, as this branch is becoming more important compared to other building systems. Second, decades ago, the vertical-transportation industry was mainly mechanically oriented. Now, it is shifting toward electronics, microprocessors, computer applications and the involvement of artificial intelligence. Even some very classical safety devices see a trend in becoming more electronics-reliant, which was not possible in the past.

HV: How do you think the industry will change in the future?
AS: Elevators will become a new means of overall transportation within buildings or even around building clusters — not just merely a vertical-transportation system anymore. What I mean is that elevator systems will evolve from one-dimensional to two-dimensional and, finally, to 3D. A lift car can bring passengers to any destination in a building by moving both vertically and horizontally. Multiple and independent cars moving along hoistways will become the trend, while ropeless linear machines will be everywhere, just like a vertical and horizontal railway system.

HV: What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?
AS: I feel privileged to be able to get in touch with this industry from an academic and R&D point of view. As a university professor, I need to teach the fundamental and latest technologies of elevator systems. Through consultancy and being an expert witness in court cases, I have had a chance to confront practicing engineers in the industry. Through code writing in Hong Kong for the government, I have been able to keep abreast with the international trends and what is readily available on the market. Through being the scientific advisor of the International Association of Elevator Engineers, I have benefited from making lots of professional friends and colleagues around the world. Finally, through contributing to EW, I have had the opportunity to share my research findings and perspective with its readers.

HV: What challenges have you faced? How did you overcome them?
AS: Until now, among all building systems — including heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC); lighting; electricity distribution; security; building automation; and life safety — I could say the elevator industry is still one of the most confidential industries around the world, full of commercial secrets. Besides a few industry magazines and a limited number of books available on the market, it is extremely difficult for laymen to come across information on elevator technologies, not to mention doing research on various components, unless you are working with an international manufacturer. Articles related to elevators are rare in academic journals. Even installers and maintenance contractors very often face difficulties in getting adequate information. I have been a little lucky in having so many friends who could supply me with information and advice and in being associated with university research centers, which are limited, around the world. I hope more scholars in universities will become interested in elevator systems and delve into this subject. Then, we can have more references to the technical aspect of this industry.

HV: What advice do you have for young people in the industry today?
AS: Many laymen may believe elevator engineering is only a trade practice, neither academic nor high tech in nature. But, I can tell young people that technologies engaged in an elevator system are far more advanced than in any other building systems. For example, VVVF drives were popularly used in the mid 1980s in elevator systems, while they were still quite new to the HVAC industry. New motor types, such as permanent-magnetic synchronous machines and reluctance motors, are becoming widely accepted. Supervisory control of elevators was the pioneer to engage algorithms of artificial intelligence in the mid 1990s. Linear motors have been popularly used for door operators for more than a decade, while the application in other building systems is still very limited. Elevator engineering is a combination of electrical, electronic, computer, mechanical, structural and material engineering. If someone is well acquainted with different technologies of an elevator system, they could easily understand any other systems installed in modern intelligent buildings.

You can read a review of Educational Focus, Volume 2, in the June 2016 issue of ELEVATOR WORLD. And, you can follow me on Twitter @HannoVanderbijl.

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