Austrade helps bespoke washing-equipment maker export to Asia

Rhima is a small manufacturing company with big ambitions. The company’s industrial washing machines are used across multiple sectors – including hospitality, medical and food-service facilities. But a genius for creating bespoke, customised machines gives Rhima a competitive edge in international markets.

In 2021, the company made a proactive bid for Asian markets. With Austrade’s help, Rhima found a Malaysia distributor and has started selling models into Malaysia.

Success shows that small manufacturers with bespoke products can enter hyper-competitive markets in Asia. ‘We are a small, established company, but it’s great that Austrade reached out to help us,’ says Chief Executive Officer, Mark Hollingsworth.

Customised manufacturing in Australia

Rhima is a great example of Australia’s prowess in advanced bespoke manufacturing. The company set up shop in Melbourne in July 1990 as a local offshoot of a Netherlands-based family company. But over the past three decades, Rhima has gained a unique and distinctive edge.

‘There are many companies that make washing equipment for the hospitality or medical or industrial sectors,’ says Hollingsworth. ‘What makes us different is that we cater to all three sectors – and we customise to meet the individual client’s needs.

‘For example, a customer comes to us with a challenge – something they need to keep washing – and we find a solution. Our ability to devise and build new washing equipment from scratch is our unique selling point.’

The bespoke approach works. Today, Rhima employs 30 people, including 26 in its Melbourne head office where it has its workshops and engineering department.

Austrade aids expansion into Asia

In 2021, Rhima took a strategic decision to proactively expand into Asia. This was a big call. Rhima’s labour-saving machines sell well in Australia where the cost of manual labour is high. Asia might be a far tougher prospect, but executives believed their ability to customise would give them a competitive edge.

‘We saw opportunities with big industrial customers in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia,’ says Hollingworth. ‘Our Austrade contact set up meetings with Austrade advisers in these countries. The advisers compiled lists of distributors who sold equipment similar to ours. They also compiled market studies.’

Austrade provided a list of 15 potential partners and Rhima did the rest.

‘We whittled the list down to 6 or 7 target partners,’ says Scott Christiansen, Finance Manager, Rhima. ‘Austrade has BDMs [Business Development Managers] in each country and these BDMs contacted our target partners to gauge interest.’

A new partner in Malaysia

The strategy worked. When Rhima attended the Enviro trade show in Singapore in May 2020, Austrade helped set up a meeting with one of the Malaysian prospects.

‘A Malaysian wholesaler-distributor, Kyowa visited us at the trade show in Singapore and reviewed what we could offer,’ says Hollingsworth. ‘They have now ordered some demonstration products to promote our brand and our service in Malaysia.’

‘Without Austrade it would have taken a lot of time and money to find this distributor,’ he adds. ‘It’s still early days, but we are optimistic. This is because we sell solutions, not washing equipment. And we are doing things here in Australia right now that no-one else is doing in Asia.’

Automation and robotics

One of those things is robotics and automation. Spurred on by COVID-19 and labour shortages on customer sites, the company is looking to grow its automation of washing-related tasks.

‘As home delivery takes off, big retailers suddenly have to handle thousands of grocery crates,’ says Hollingsworth. ‘Obviously they need to wash these crates, so we have worked with our partners to develop a new method for drying them. This involves spinning the crates at high speed as they exit the washing machines. This is a breakthrough in performance and energy saving compared to traditional drying’

Rhima is also experimenting with robotics.

‘We want to use robots to load and unload food service machines,’ says Hollingsworth. ‘Currently no-one is doing this, but we are looking at full washer-robot integration.’

Austrade helps with continued expansion

Austrade continues to help Rhima explore new markets. This includes helping executives analyse prospects in Fiji. Meanwhile, the Asia region holds enormous potential.

‘We have big plans to grow in Asia and our Singapore showroom is a part of that strategy to showcase what we can do,’ says Hollingworth.

‘Austrade is now helping us to grow in Thailand,’ he adds. ‘Advisers in Bangkok have set up meetings and that’s how we get to know people. Austrade are instrumental in making sure that potential partners come and visit us.’

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