Staff from Ballymena-based Wrightbus are on their way to the Far East to oversee the building of 50 new vehicles which will next year be driving the streets of Hong Kong in a multi-million pound deal.
Wrightbus International, in partnership with Volvo Bus, has secured major orders from two new customers – Hong Kong based bus operators New World First Bus Services Limited and Citybus Limited for 20 and 31 new double-deck buses respectively.
The vehicles will be operated in Hong Kong and assembled in Malaysia by Wrightbus International's new partner Masdef.
Personnel from Wrightbus International will relocate to Masdef's manufacturing facility in Puchong, just south of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, to support training of the workforce, with assembly due to will start in mid-2014 and all vehicles due for delivery in January 2015.
The buses will be supplied in Completely Knocked Down (CKD) format and will be shipped from Ballymena to Malaysia in flat-pack format.
The orders are for 50 fully air conditioned tri-axle Wrightbus double deck buses on Volvo B9 Euro 5 chassis, 11.3m in length with a passenger capacity of 128 and one evaluation vehicle built to a length of 12.8m with a total capacity of 150.
The vehicles will feature the Wrightbus Gemini 2 body style which is already popular in Asia Pacific.
Wrightbus business development director Steve Harper said that the order is "highly significant".
"The new partnership agreement with Masdef is an important part of our strategy to extend our presence and capability in the region and will hopefully provide a springboard for further future developments." he said.
Meanwhile, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster, who witnessed the partnership agreement signing between Wrightbus and Masdef during her recent visit to Singapore, said that Wrightbus is one of Northern Ireland's pioneering manufacturing firms.
"The company's partnership agreements with Volvo Bus and Masdef have proved to be a successful way to secure valuable business," she said.
Last month the minister met with top executives from Singapore bus and rail network operator SBS Transit, who placed an order in 2012 for 550 double-deck buses from Wrightbus which are to be delivered by mid 2015.
Flat-pack is like a giant Meccano
Wrightbus first moved into supplying Complete Knocked Down, or CKD, bus kits in 2010 for the Hong Kong market.
The kits are created in Northern Ireland and then shipped out to other countries for assembly under supervision, which saves both labour and transportation costs and means the company is flexible and adaptable enough to send buses all over the world.
The bus bodies are connected via a bolt and toggle system, with no welding required.
The aluminuim parts are cut out in Ballymena, packed into boxes and shipped to the destination factory, where they are pieced together and mounted on the chassis – a bit like a giant Meccano system.
The Gemini 2 model was first built in 2008 and is now a familiar sight on high streets all across the UK as well as in Hong Kong, where they are painted gold.
Asian export success for company's dedicated international sales team
Back in 2011, Wrightbus International, a separate organisation from the main Wrightbus company, was formed, with a team dedicated exclusively to developing and securing export orders.
The company's journey into Asia started over a decade ago, with Mark Nodder, group managing director of Wrights Group Ltd, touring the region in 1999 to look at new markets and opportunities.
Hong Kong and Singapore were top of his list, with over 6,500 public transport buses in Hong Kong alone. Both areas already had strong business links to the UK, had purchased buses from British companies and were operating right hand drive vehicles.
In 2000, along with partners Volvo, Wrightbus secured an order to build a prototype bus in Hong Kong, marking the start of a process which resulted in the production of 450 buses for the Hong Kong transport system over eight years.
In 2013, the company opened a small Wrightbus International office in Singapore and a subsidiary in Hong Kong.
In 2009 Wrightbus began to look at Singapore.
Increased volumes in Hong Kong and new opportunities in Singapore have been described as a "lifeline" for Wrightbus when the manufacturing recession was at its deepest in 2009/10 and a third of the firm's UK order book disappeared as a result – meaning that the company avoided significant redundancies in Northern Ireland.
The Wrightbus order book
* In January 2014, Wrightbus won a large share of a £70m contract to provide 425 vehicles to the UK firm FirstGroup. Wrightbus will provide 301 buses, newly designed and using hybrid technology to improve fuel efficiency by around 10%.
* In 2012 Wrightbus landed a £41m contract to supply 550 double deck bus kits to SBS Transit for assembly in Singapore.
* Wrightbus was chosen by SBS Transit to provide vehicles tailored to Singapore's demanding operations.
The company's buses ferry more than 2.6m commuters to work and school every day.
* Also in 2012, Wrightbus secured possibly the most important deal in the company's history, supplying 600 vehicles to London in a contract worth more than £200m.