Sihanoukville truck maker finds a new export market by outfitting ambulances
RM Asia is working with a Ford plant to convert light trucks into Red Cross/Red Crescent ambulances for use in the Middle East.
A factory at Sihanoukville is making custom-built ambulances for use by the US Army, adding a high-tech niche product to an export sector dominated by the garment industry.
The Cambodian subsidiary of multinational products and services company RM Asia is working under contract with Ford to convert its four-wheel-drive light trucks into ambulances for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
RM Asia began modifying the vehicles late last year at its 200,000-square-meter factory at Sihanoukville port, said the company’s country manager in Cambodia, Jean-Boris Roux.
The factory duplicates on a smaller scale RM Asia’s plant in Thailand where it has been modifying vehicles for five years.
Roux said the factory has a contract for 400 ambulances, of which 87 have been completed, each with a price tag of $27,000.
The trucks are delivered from Ford’s plants in Thailand and modified for use as ambulances by 25 Cambodians who were trained in Thailand, Roux told the Post on July 2.
The comprehensive modification process involves fitting equipment ranging from air-conditioners and heaters to GPS systems and inverters to operate medical equipment. The completed ambulances are designed to carry up to five people: two patients and a nurse in the back and a driver and nurse in the cabin.
Roux said four ambulances can be produced a day and that while the modification work was not complicated, the US Army was a demanding customer.
“Every time we have a shipment prepared, we have a visit from a US Army inspector who comes to check the quality and compliance with their specifications. The standards are very high, so it’s a big job in terms of quality control,” Roux said.
He said the factors which influenced the company’s decision to establish the vehicle plant were its involvement in Cambodia since 1990 and its success in obtaining a prime site within Sihanoukville port.
Roux said RM Asia planned to begin producing vehicles for the Cambodian market next year after obtaining the necessary approval from the authorities.
“The objective in Cambodia would not be to duplicate this model for local customers. It would be more to find out what kind of modifications we can make for customers here,” he said.
Roux said that while the custom-built ambulances were for the US Army, they were not designed for combat zones.
“They are not bullet-proof vehicles, but they are four by fours. Where and how exactly they’ll be used is information I don’t have.”
He said that in Thailand, RM Asia produced armored vehicles for use by the US and British armed forces and the Singaporean police.
“Bullet-proofing cars is a very specific job and is a difficult technology and requires special materials. I don’t see this happening in Cambodia in the near future, but other types of vehicles, yes.”
Roux said RM Asia had developed its expertise in vehicle modifications over many years.
He said it was one of a few companies outside the US to be designated by Ford as a “qualified vehicle modifier”, which allows RM Asia to modify Ford vehicles and sell them under the US automotive giant’s name.
Roux said establishing a specialized vehicle production operation in Cambodia was good for its economic development because it was helping to diversify the economy and build human capacity.
“It’s important to be able to widen the base of the industry here… You talk about garments and that’s basically it. We are training people to learn new skills.”
The factory’s manager, Virote Sawangchange, said RM Asia would also like to make standard vehicles, as well as fire trucks and armored cars for transporting cash.
“Our plant in Thailand produces many kinds of bullet-proof vehicles,” said Virote. “In Thailand, if someone wants to order a bullet-proof vehicle, they are required to seek approval from the Ministry of Defence; they need a lot of documents,” he said.
Sihanoukville deputy governor Sboang Sarath welcomed RM Asia’s venture there and expressed hope it would be followed by other players in the automotive industry.
“We have prepared 50 hectares of land right at the port for any carmaker that wishes to set up operations in Sihanoukville,” he said.