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Thinking On Rails - News

There really is a lot more to the length of railing than you might think. Bendtech, of Slacks Creek a little south of Brisbane, produces railings for the elderly and disabled, along with a variety of other stainless steel products aimed at making life a little easier and safer, and does so innovatively.

Written by John Boley

Bendtech staff in front of tube forming machine

Managing Director Tim Shalders explains that putting some thought into the product ranges, intended mainly for the use of people with disabilities, is a priority not just for customer satisfaction, but for the well-being of the company.

The business was founded in 1992 and taken over by a group of investors who purchased it in 2007. Obviously that suggests there was potential in the market for growth. The aged care sector, not the only area of Bendtech’s activity but an important one, is growing at a steady eight per cent per year, and Tim says, “We saw an opportunity to move with that industry growth.” However, it was immediately evident that simply being one of a crowd and following the curve would lead to stagnation. “Our opportunity was to take products and quality to another level. Anybody can bend a piece of tube. It’s about how you go about adding value to it.”

Bendtech brings in flat stainless steel from offshore and processes it in its own tube rolling machines. “This gives us control over quality because we actually mill the product.” Even this is no big deal in itself, says Tim – anyone else could do it if they wanted to invest in the equipment. “But where the innovation comes in is that, instead of just producing grab rail and handrails that have been around forever, we have looked at what we can do to make the product different and innovative.”

Prominent – and topical – among the products with a touch of innovation is the Oval Tube, a range of products launching around the time you read this. It’s a world first, says Tim: “mainly because of the complexity of bending an oval tube shape.” Bending an oval is “quite tricky” but the advantage lies in the absence of joins – no weak points, less susceptibility to corrosion and better hygiene – no small factor in settings such as hospitals. “The occupational therapists are very excited by this product, which we have shown them at trade shows,” says Tim.

The rationale behind oval tubing comes straight from the occupational therapists, who have long said that such a design is more ergonomic, more comfortable and more easily gripped by a hand that may be frail or not working properly. “The elderly hand, as well as becoming frail, actually shrinks with age,” Tim explains. Round tube by Australian standards AS1428.1 must be between 30 and 40 mm and, “if you make it an oval shape it makes it much easier for the elderly hand to grip it.” At this stage the oval tubing range is destined only for domestic consumption as UK and US standards dictate different sizes – Bendtech could produce those sizes but it’s a matter of balancing cost and tooling against demand. “It’s a premium product so we’re talking around 40 per cent more than a standard rail, but if we see it take off here we could export.”

Disability glow rail

Another range, launched late last year, is the Glow Rail, a patented series of 32 mm products that have a plastic strip embedded with phosphorescent material sealed into the steel. Tim says this idea actually came from one of the Bendtech team looking at the emergency floor lighting strip on a passenger aircraft; now, here is a safety railing that glows in the dark for up to eight hours so energy-saving elderly people can turn off the light at night yet still see the rail if necessary. The price premium is very small and Tim believes this range will become extremely popular.

Bendtech’s range of grab rails has also achieved registration by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). This is not a compulsory regulation. “We did it to make a point of difference, that our goods are registered with TGA. It’s quite a process to go through and took us about 12 months, although we didn’t have to change anything about the quality of our products. They are registered as medical devices and as such they have to be made to a very high level of quality.” Tim acknowledges that the TGA and its implicit quality assurance is fairly new to the industry and there may not be full awareness of the register among builders, architects and specifiers yet. TGA is still optional and there is no requirement as yet to make it mandatory. However, there are signs that an increasing number of institutions – several hospitals in Brisbane, for example – are specifying only TGA registered products from now on.

Perhaps surprisingly, Tim suggests the market is not mature. In any case, he adds, most of the competition products nowadays are imported, with only a couple of other companies still manufacturing in Australia. Bendtech, too, brings some of its products in from its manufacturing plant in China, though a majority of its crafted stainless steel products are manufactured in the Australian factories. For the rest of the industry, “90 per cent of products come in from China and India; they have become commodity items and no one is making much money. If we can compete with the likes of China, by ensuring there is a low labour content in our products, we can compete with anyone world-wide because the raw material – stainless steel – is a commodity product.”

When Tim arrived, Bendtech sourced around 80 per cent of its products in its own two plants in Brisbane; now the ratio is around 60 per cent local and “we don’t see that changing because if you are smart in your manufacturing you can compete with anyone else.” The gap in labour cost from China to Australia is likely if anything to shrink in the future (Tim says that Bendtech also maintains two plants in China that have seen labour costs double since he took over), so there is no good reason why the company should not be able to maintain its position now that it has competitive manufacturing facilities.

Tim inspecting a grab rail

Bendtech is not solely in the healthcare sector – one of its Chinese plants is a joint venture with a large mining company, for whom it also produces a series of specific products. The company also owns a Melbourne-based company in the home care side of the business and overall the healthcare sector accounts for around 60 per cent of turnover. “I see that growing,” says Tim.

Bendtech’s main business is in making and supplying a wide range of tubing and grab rails, bathroom accessories, hand shower items, shower seats and threshold ramps to builders, hospitals and aged care facilities, usually through distributors. But the company has just opened up its catalogue to the retail sector with online ordering. “We are going into a new space. But it’s a big wide world out there and now anyone can buy online.” Early feedback suggests that the Cleanseal range of shower grab rail fittings in particular, designed as quality items to keep clean and free of bacteria, have a wider market and are just as attractive to the able-bodied homeowner who wants a clean quality shower.

It is vital that anyone – public or professional alike – installing such equipment should fix it securely; there is no safety advantage in a railing that is not firmly bolted to the wall, after all, and everything comes with detailed instructions on how to make sure the product is properly secured. Bendtech recommends strongly that all items should be installed by a licensed tradesman and packaging for products to the consumer has been redesigned to stress this.

Bucking the trend by being a successful manufacturer in Australia, can Bendtech buck another trend by conquering export markets? Tim says the company has dabbled in exports on a “very limited” basis. The American system is very basic, he points out – “light years behind Australia when it comes to aged care” – but the UK is much more similar. Tim is cautious, but he does believe it is possible for Bendtech to establish what might justifiably be termed a ‘hand-hold’ in that market too in the not-so-distant future.

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