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Rail Car HVAC - Innovation is the Key

When German manufacturing giant Knorr-Bremse acquired Australia’s Sigma Air Conditioning in 2010 many things changed in the company that had started as a family entity more than 40 years ago. One thing that remained unchanged, though was a 20 year relationship with OEM Technology Solutions.

Thirty year company veteran, General Manager Joe Schembri, said that once Sigma became part of one of the world’s largest component suppliers, previously outsourced manufacturing was brought back in house.

“But our relationship with OEM was one of the exceptions and continued unchanged, mainly because it had become more like a partnership,” Joe said.

OEM has supplied Programmed Logic Controllers for Sigma’s market leading train heating ventilation and air conditioning systems for more than 20 years. Indeed, it was Sigma’s specific requirement for such a unit that was to lead to OEM becoming an internationally regarded specialist.

“When I first met with OEM’s Chairman James McLeod he was running an embryonic, home-based business so it has been a very long relationship.

“At the time we were using PLC’s that simply couldn’t meet the specific requirements for rolling stock, requirements that were becoming tougher and tougher.

“I was the responsible design engineer at the time and met James almost at day one of our now 20 year relationship.”

Harking back to his “partnership” comment, Joe said that that relationship was very much at the heart of the two companies’ dealings.

“While we introduced OEM to the rolling stock industry where they are now a major player and supply to our competitors all over the world, they still provide innovative solutions that give us a point of difference with our product offerings.

“Their services, ideas and innovations give us that point of difference.”

Joe believes that OEM’s responsiveness and speed have also been key to maintaining the ties.

“We are able to rely on them to deliver. In fact, we used to do a lot of our own software writing and functional specifications and now we don’t do any, leaving it all top them.”

One of Sigma’s advantages is a development of an OEM remote monitoring application that the company had devised for another market area.

“We saw the system and asked them to re-develop it to allow remote monitoring of HVAC units via the internet. 

“Now we can have an AC unit on a strain in the middle of nowhere and as long as we’ve got some sort of connection via the internet, one of our technicians with an iPad can log into the serial number of a particular unit and see what it is doing.

“No one else I am aware of is doing that.”

“OEM not only steps up to the bar time and time again from a technology perspective, but they are also prepared to support us commercially when a project is particularly price sensitive. 

“In fact, far from taking us for granted because we are such a long term customer, they have continued to look at ways of recuing costs and over time the actual price of their PLC has gone down, not up.

“But their core strength is most definitely a very good intellect base. They have very good engineers who have been there for a long time. They understand our product extremely well and when something goes wrong, particularly during first up commissioning of a prototype, they will have someone on a plane the next day, sending them anywhere in the world to support us,” Joe said.

“We rely as much on their experience as we do o their innovative technology.”

That OEM’s technology is continually evolving is very much a plus for Sigma and a matter of some personal satisfaction for Joe who sees the faith he placed 20 years ago in a start-up home business daily being validated by the diversification and expansion of that business.

“We introduced them to the rail industry with our HVAC requirement and they’re now producing condition monitoring systems for trains worldwide, CCTV systems for the Waratah train in NSW and much more.

“They’re at all of the world’s big industry exhibitions and their key staff spend as much time on international flights as I do.

“In fact, the last time I bumped into James we were both flying off to China,” he added


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