Destination-dispatch technology, like Schindler's PORT system (shown above), is being added to new and existing mid- and high-rise buildings to streamline vertical transportation.
Schindler Destination-dispatch technology, like Schindler's PORT system (shown above), is being added to new and existing mid- and high-rise buildings to streamline vertical transportation.

Throwing an appendage between closing doors to ensure a coworker makes it into the elevator may soon become an obsolete gesture of office goodwill. A new class of destination-dispatch systems—through which occupants input their floor on a dashboard, are told which car to board, and are transported with few or no intermediary stops—is being integrated in mid- and high-rise commercial office, hospitality, and healthcare facilities to streamline traffic flow.

Recently, the 12-story, 248,600-square-foot commercial office building in Washington, D.C., that houses ARCHITECT’s publisher, Hanley Wood, was outfitted with the technology. The overhaul rights a number of wrongs: no more guessing which elevator will arrive first, no more holding doors for stragglers, and an overall faster ride. All that, plus the shiny touchscreens and surprisingly few internal buttons, piqued our interest. So we called Schindler—whose PORT (Personal Occupant Requirement Terminal) system is our new golden stainless-steel chariot—and asked product manager Jeff Blain to tell us how it works. (Schindler, of course, isn’t the only manufacturer in the destination-dispatch game. Kone, ThyssenKrupp, Otis Elevator, Mitsubishi, and others continue to upgrade similar technology for mid- and high-rise buildings. That group is also designing more efficient cables or removing them altogether to improve vertical transport.)

ARCHITECT: What is destination-dispatch technology?
Blain: Instead of pressing an up and down button at every floor, you select the floor you want on a [digital] interface and an algorithm picks a car to service your demand. As a result, the elevator knows more or less how many people are at every floor and where they all want to go. A simple example of what it can do with that information is group people with common destinations into common elevators. 

How long has this technology been around?

We started developing it in the 1990s with telephone-style keypads for the interface. The up and down buttons had been in existence for so long that it was difficult to get people to accept something new. It's a similar evolution for the touchscreen, but with everyone today using smartphones and ATMs, people are more accepting of new technology. The PORT system [launched in 2009] is our third generation of destination-dispatch technology. We're building it into our new mid-rise, new-construction product, the Schindler 5500.

Tell us more about the interface.
It's similar to the graphical interface of a smartphone or tablet. It can also be made part of a building’s wayfinding. In hotels, for example, it could say which ballroom is on which floor to augment other signage. It has a built-in speaker and a card reader. 

Does its functionality affect where the elevators can be placed?
The location of each touchscreen and each elevator is programmed into the system. When you enter your destination and it assigns you an elevator, the system knows how long you have to walk to get to that elevator. It’s not going to give you one you can't get to. That means you don’t have to put the touchscreens near the elevator bank. It also can better distribute traffic around the lobby. In a conventional system, you don’t know which elevator is coming, so people congregate in the center waiting to see which lantern lights up. In a destination system, once people are assigned their specific elevator, they naturally wait in front of that one.

Can this be customized for individual users, such as those who may need more time to get in and out of an elevator car, or to restrict public access to certain floors?
For every “from:to” combination that exists in the building, [building managers] can decide whether they want it open or restricted—whether occupants have to swipe a card or enter a pin code, or both, and all of it can vary based on the time of the day and the day of the week. Individuals can also personalize their experience. Those with sight problems, for example, can get a voice announcement from the interface to let them know which elevator to take. I could tell the system to give me a car that’s no more than so many feet from the call station, or to give me extra time to get to the elevator. I can also tell it that I need more space inside because I use a wheelchair or a walker. Building occupants can make changes to their [personal] settings on their own using the touchscreens.

How does this impact the level of control a building manager has over the system?

It used to be that anybody with a key to the panel inside the elevator could take the car out of service or use it for a specific function, but [the PORT system] controls the operating modes. Building managers can pull a car out of the normal traffic run for use as a part-time service elevator or call an elevator for a VIP run, for example, which means it will bring the elevator empty and do an express run to the destination floor before automatically sending it back into service.

The latest iteration of the PORT system's wall- or pedestal-mounted touchscreen interface.
Schindler The latest iteration of the PORT system's wall- or pedestal-mounted touchscreen interface.
Schindler The PORT interface is fitted with an access-card reader.

Does the system have machine-learning capability?
When the traffic is intense, it’ll adjust the algorithm to fine-tune the performance. The system also tries to save energy. The touchscreens enter standby mode when they haven’t been used for a while; an elevator may pick someone up in a car that already has a few people in it, which means that car is closer to balance with the system’s counterweight and will use less energy to make the trip; or it may keep some elevators idle during certain periods of the day.

What about building types—where can this be used?

Early on, destination-dispatch systems were successful in office buildings but had a hard time [getting into] in other applications, like hotels and hospitals. That's changing.

It seems like this system would be useful in hospitals.

Hospitals are a challenge because the elevators are used for so many different functions: staff moving around the building, transporting patients, equipment, food, refuse. Sometimes it's an emergency, sometimes it isn’t. They may be doing all that with the same bank of elevators. We could customize the system, using the access cards, to give certain individuals and functions priority. If it’s an emergency, it’ll bring the closest elevator, express the user to where they want to go, and automatically put the elevator back into service.

What’s the ideal application, as far as the number of elevators, floors, and people?
The more elevators in the bank, the greater the ability the system has to do its thing. Mid- and high-res buildings are very common, with four to six elevators for mid-rise and six to eight elevators for high-rise buildings. Population depends on the floor-plate size but we’ll take that into consideration [when customizing the system]. It can be installed in new construction—about one-third of our business—or existing buildings—the other two-thirds—with either our or another vendor’s equipment. 

What’s next?

We’re expanding the technology and hardware into general building-access control. We’re working with the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco to think of new features and functions to help those with special needs. For example, mobile apps for individuals in wheelchairs, so the system senses them approach a door and automatically open it. Later this year we’ll be releasing MyPORT, a mobile app for the Port elevator system that will tell users as they approach the elevator lobby which elevator to take.

via GIPHY Destination-dispatch systems typically contain only a handful of buttons within the elevator car. And in this case, fewer buttons means fewer frustrations.

This interview has been edited and condensed.