Cable cars running 130 metres up the hillside at a Vietnamese resort could have been steel and glass boxes. Instead, thanks to Hutt firm Access Automation, they look like traditional fishing boats gliding past the beachfront villas.
Dubbed the "Nam Trams", the hillside lifts at the Intercontinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort have just won Access Automation the "Best Inclined Elevator" section of the USA-based Elevator World magazine's Project of the Year Awards.
As they have many times now for jobs in Australia, Asia and the Pacific, owner Mark Galvin and his staff of 10 beat much larger, mostly European, firms to win the Danang contract.
The Vietnamese job had substantial aesthetic and engineering challenges but the way it was tackled by Access Automation highlights how the niche engineering firm tailors bespoke solutions for clients.
Mr Galvin said architects Bensley Design Studios came up with the fishing boat idea. "Our job was to turn someone else's dream into a large scale, practical reality."
The cable cars' exteriors are handcrafted, woven rattan skins. But inside is robust modern technology.
Rising as high as 12m off the ground, and running 130m across three gradient levels, people "needed a sense of comfort" that what they were steeping into was safe, Mr Galvin said.
The beach site is beautiful, but from time to time typhoons with winds of 200kmh-plus strike.
There are also huge temperature extremes and the Access designers and engineers had to deal with a range of other environmental factors, such as monsoon rains.
On top of all that it had to look good.
"A big, ugly mechanical lift would have been a blight.
"That's our point of difference as a company. We've always positioned ourselves to make our equipment fit the site, as opposed to modifying the site with earthworks to suit the technology.
"In other words, we make the machines blend in."
The Hutt company's self- levelling bogie system came into its own, allowing the Nam Trams to glide along concave and convex bends, with gradients varying from 48 degrees to 22deg, without bumps and deceleration that would unsettle passengers.
Mr Galvin founded Access Automation 20 years ago. He was a scientist at the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research doing the original research on CNG, ethanol and other biofuels. His father was a builder who would often put up houses on steep Wellington sites.
Mr Galvin's first cable cars were commercial lifts built to carry materials to awkward sites. His knack for finding solutions for typical Wellington topography led to more and more requests as architects' eyes were opened as to what was possible.
The company has grown to be perhaps the biggest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, but "still a minnow" compared to many on the other side of the world.
With the New Zealand market largely captured - and the local scene quiet of late with the sluggish economy - as much as 80 per cent of the firm's work is now overseas. Its first international contract was in the Solomon Islands 18 years ago, and after doing a job for one of the big international hotels in Bali, It has now done work there for just about all of them: The Intercontinental, the Ritz- Carlton, Bulgari and others.
"Word gets around . . . and we've got a good internet site."
Manufacturing and construction manager Gavin McKay leads the project teams, or as Mr Galvin puts it, "draws the short straw, and hangs from ropes up on the hillsides".
Mr Galvin didn't want this article to be "political" - it was to celebrate an award from a magazine that is the word in his industry - but it's true to say Access Automation has forged its international reputation without help.
They've had people from Trade New Zealand in but "while they were very friendly, we never seemed to fit in this category or that category . . . 'but if you fill out this 37-page application form we'll see what we can do'."
Trade NZ only seems able to help if a firm has 100-plus employees and is already a major exporter, Mr Galvin and Mr McKay said.
The high New Zealand dollar doesn't help either but Access Automation will continue to do what it does best.
"Sometimes when you go to meetings with clients, they're not even sure what they want. We're not just selling a product but advice and professional services," Mr Galvin said.
- Hutt News