Rickard: ‘Intelligent comfort control’ made locally

By Ilana Koegelenberg

Rickard Air Diffusion not only locally manufactures world-class diffusers, it places a great emphasis on technology and engineering to ensure that their products keep its edge.

Rickard00 7MM The original Ottery plant.
Iamge credit: Rickard

In 1979, Rickard Air Diffusion was established in Cape Town with a staff complement of only two: Brian Rickard and his wife, Gwen Rickard. Today, it is one of the leading producers of variable air volume (VAV) equipment and controls internationally.

The company is privately owned, managed, and directed by its shareholders and employs more than 135 staff members at its two facilities in Cape Town, with an additional 15 employees at its assembly plant in Pretoria.

Getting started

Brian Rickard started his HVAC career in the fan industry and eventually decided to go into business on his own when he and his family moved to Cape Town. Brian Rickard, as it was then called, started off selling fans and ancillaries for a variety of agencies. When he came across VAV diffusers, the technology was in its infancy and between him and Harry Schuurmans, the technology was developed.

Seeing a gap in the market, Schuurmans and Brian Rickard worked together to turn the idea into a product. Schuurmans, who created the first design, was paid a royalty for a period and Brian Rickard turned the design into a product that could be manufactured. Initially, the manufacturing was outsourced to a local manufacturer until Rickard had grown enough to take on more and more of the manufacturing and assembly itself. It wasn’t a mainstream product at that time and Rickard was instrumental in growing it locally and internationally.

Since then, the product line has been further developed and the design fine-tuned to make manufacturing easier. Over the years, as production grew, Rickard systematically built up its own manufacturing facility to where it is today — manufacturing virtually every component in-house.

Many of the machines have been acquired (new and second-hand) over the years, some of which have been re-engineered to fit Rickard’s needs. They maintain these machines in-house as far as possible, but also have specialists in from time to time.

It is an ongoing process though, and the work never stops. “We’re always thinking how we can improve and make things better,” says Mark Rickard, marketing director.

Products and services

Rickard Air Diffusion’s slogan “Intelligent Comfort Control” underlies its belief that VAV diffusers must be designed to not only intelligently maintain comfort levels, but achieve this efficiently too.

South Africa is unique in that it uses VAV diffusers in most of its buildings that are air conditioned with ducted systems. The alternative that is commonly used abroad is a combination of constant volume diffusers and VAV boxes. The advantages of VAV diffusers are their energy savings, comfort levels, and flexibility. A study by an external engineering consultancy shows that VAV diffusers save 20% of an installation’s air-conditioning energy expenditure and 5% of the entire building’s energy bill. Unlike VAV boxes, VAV diffusers directly affect fan speed and hence, energy used when they reduce the volume of air into the conditioned space. VAV diffusers are also able to maintain air movement and comfort levels while doing so.

The company is quite focused on optimising the production line and improving efficiencies — that is what gives them the edge.

It is their controls in particular that give them the edge. Rickard has a partnership with a local controls company to develop controls according to their needs. Rickard uses industry-leading controls to intelligently control its products and the latest engineering tools to design them. They offer the client seamless integration into a buildings management system and unparalleled flexibility for building layout changes. Rickard offers further energy-saving functionality through built-in occupancy sensing, which closes the diffuser and switches off the lights when the room is unoccupied.

The advantages of VAV diffusers and Rickard’s focus on innovation and quality have seen growth for the company into overseas markets.

But the company doesn’t just manufacture VAV diffusers. They also offer constant volume diffusers, controls, electronic variable volume diffusers, grilles, thermal variable volume diffusers, and other extras and accessories like insulated flex. This makes it easier for clients to get what they need whenever they work with Rickard’s diffusers.

Optimising production

In 2016, the company grew by more than 40% and were bursting at the seams. They quickly realised that to shorten lead times and continue growing, they needed to find more space.

They identified a 5 000m2 building in Lansdowne that was suitable and close enough to its Ottery facility (3 000m2) to give them enough space to grow the business. So, during the 2016 shutdown, they moved their administration, sales, and retail departments and created a dedicated production facility for its ceiling diffuser line.

Since the old factory had been constrained by capacity, they identified a need for a new larger and more efficient powder-coating plant. The new coating facility has the future potential to run up to twice the capacity of the Ottery facility. They have also incorporated two spray booths, which allow them to spray both standard and special colours without interrupting the production stream.

The new powder-coating plant at the Lansdowne facility has increased production efficiency.
Image credit: RickardView of the new Lansdowne facility. They can keep much higher stock levels now.
Image credit: RickardRickard prides itself in looking after its staff.
Image credit: RickardQuality control is an essential part of the production process at Rickard.
Image credit: Rickard

The Ottery factory is still home to Rickard’s engineering, laboratory, and marketing departments and produces its dampers, grilles, radials, and linear diffusers.

This move was no small feat and a great deal of planning went into ensuring that production never stopped.

In general, the company is quite focused on optimising the production line and improving efficiencies — that is what gives them the edge. That and having a niche product of course.

Although some parts of the spray booth are automated, there is no intention to fully automate the production line. “You need a person to ensure detail and quality,” explains Nishaam Ebrahim, planning and quality manager. Also, there simply aren’t the volumes to automate.

It is hard to predict volumes and it can be tricky, as the factory always needs to keep busy for it to be lucrative. That is why they would rather work overtime or employ short-term contractors than employ more staff who will need to be retrenched when business slows down. In 38 years, the company has never retrenched anyone; it looks after its staff.

Since moving into the new facility as well, the company has quadrupled their stock levels. Another plus for clients.

They also place a great importance on quality control and their products get tested at numerous points along the production line — some more than once.


Power was initially a challenge, but now there is a backup generator for most of the production facility to ensure that there is no downtime during power cuts.

Water is still an issue obviously with the main operation being situated in the drought-stricken Cape Town. But the whole company has gotten involved in employing various water-saving initiatives throughout the plant and office.

They are improving their water usage on an ongoing basis and are looking at getting trailers with backup water and possibly a borehole.

All about relationships

The Rickard production line uses a lot of steel and gets its material in the form of blank sheets that are pressed in the factory. It is vital to have a good relationship with the steel supplier, explains Mark Rickard. Because they are a good client, who always pays on time and uses large volumes of product, they are fortunate that their supplier always keeps them in the loop of what is going on and how stock is doing, ensuring that they always have enough steel plates for their production.

It is not just the suppliers that are well looked after. Rickard believes in treating its staff with fairness and respect across the board. Their moto is “Soft on people, tough on standards”. The company has a very low staff turnover, and some have been employed for over 25 years.

The original Ottery plant.
Image credit: RickardAerial shot of the Lansdowne facility.
Image credit: RickardManufacturing the insulated flex product is a new addition for Rickard.
Image credit: Rickard

The entire team gets involved in innovation and finding better ways to do things. The business is run like a family and everyone works towards the greater good. They have regular meetings involving various key staff members from a variety of divisions to constantly see how the design and production line can be improved.

Although the unions can be challenging, especially when new staff join, generally Rickard does not struggle too much because they look after their staff. The company is very transparent and believes in keeping everyone informed about exactly how well (or poorly) the business is performing.

When it comes to their own clients, the Rickard team prides itself in always being able to make a plan and going the extra mile for their clients. “Service and relationships are very important to us,” says Ebrahim. “We will bend over backwards for our customers.”

Staying competitive

Times are tough locally in terms of the economy but fortunately, a sizable portion of Rickard’s work comes from the international market. Mark Rickard predicts that this year, the international volumes will exceed the local ones.

“The quality of manufacturing in South Africa is not as bad as people think,” says Ebrahim. “Everything doesn’t have to be made in China — South Africa is still a good place to manufacture.” The company tried importing certain products at some point, but invariably ended up improving the design and making it in-house instead.

“We always try and add value to a product and make it better,” says Ebrahim.

That is another way the company stays competitive. They have a good relationship with the consultants and because they have their own in-house engineers, they can often assist in developing and manufacturing products specifically to the consultant’s needs. “Our customising capability gives us the edge,” says Mark Rickard.

In terms of VAV, there really isn’t much local competition for Rickard. It’s because it is hard to compete with the years of experience and engineering of the company, not to mention the high start-up costs of equipment. “Competitors underestimate the technology that goes into our product,” explains Garth Paris, financial director.

Prudent financial control is one of the keys to Rickard’s success as a company. “We look for slow and steady natural growth,” says Paris. “And we only spend when we can afford it. We are in it for the long haul.”

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