IM GROUP – TAKING AUSTRALIAN EXPERTISE TO THE WORLD
From humble beginnings IM Group has become a world leader in automotive electronics, servicing customers in Australia, Europe, the US, South America and Asia. Having recently been acquired by GUD Automotive, the company is poised for even greater success in the future
“Great oaks from little acorns grow,” goes the saying, and once you learn the story of IM Group, you’ll have no doubt that the old adage is true.
What started as a husband and wife business in the early ‘80s is now a much larger operation specialising in automotive electronics that sells its expertise all over the world. And in a move destined to ensure it keeps growing, the business was recently bought by leading industry group, GUD Automotive.
IM Group Managing Director and Founder, Rex Vandenberg, began his career in the automotive industry as an apprentice motor mechanic in the mid ‘70s. Upon gaining qualification, Rex purchased Futura Auto Services in nearby Keysborough and began repairing and servicing cars.
A new wave of technological change soon followed with the introduction of electronic fuel injection, and a change in career direction for Rex beckoned.
“In the mid ‘80s the XE Ford and VK Commodore came out with fuel injection. I always had a love for electronics so I studied electronics. I ran the business during the day and went off to school at night,” Rex said.
“Then, with one of my brothers, we started repairing engine computers and more and more people started sending us cars to diagnose. We did work for a lot of the dealer cars, mainly repairing cars and diagnosing what was wrong with them. Sometimes it was the computer and sometimes it was something in the car.”
In the early ‘90s Rex gave up general repairs and focussed on vehicle electronics – climate control, cruise control, air flow meters and engine computers – and a decade later he moved the business to its current premises in Hallam.
“We also started selling new Electronic service parts, some of it is aftermarket and some of it is genuine OEM,” explained Rex.
“As we grew we sold more and more of these parts. We do our own remanufacturing, and we sell both aftermarket and OEM parts that distribute around Australia through businesses such as Repco, Supercheap and Burson and other specialists.”
Naturally, Rex has seen a lot of change over the years.
“The VK Holden and the XE Ford started with an analogue engine computer that had a bunch of separate components – transistors and resistors and diodes and capacitors. That progressed to digital electronics with a micro-controller, taking in the information and then outputting various signals controlling many components around the engine. There are even engine ECUs no larger than a Human hand where the wires are connected to a ceramic board with ultrasonically bonded aluminium wires,” Rex said.
“In the early days, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge available about fuel injection. Even the dealerships, which were getting these cars into their service areas, didn’t necessarily have the training to diagnose a problem. Everyone understood carburettors, but as soon as there was fuel injection, people got a little bit lost.”
It hasn’t always easy for Rex as OE information often proved difficult to source.
“Getting information is a real challenge. Some car companies are opening up to workshops, giving access to wiring diagrams, but getting information on the signals of the crank angle sensor or cam angle sensor is generally difficult and always very time consuming, and it can be expensive,” he said.
Despite that situation, IM Group often comes to the rescue when manufacturers can no longer source an OEM part from their suppliers.
“Over the years we have helped solve problems for at least half a dozen car manufacturers when their supplier cannot deliver a particular engine computer or a body control module, or something like that,” stated Rex.
“A recent example occurred with a two-door convertible, where the roof would go down, but wouldn’t go back up again. It was a five-year-old car and the control unit for the roof would fail, but that part was no longer made. They came to us and asked, ‘What can you do? We have cars around Australia in dealerships with the roof down so they can’t go out.’
“They gave us a car and they instructed their dealerships to send the module down to us. We would repair it then send the module back to the dealership.”
Rex says IM Group has a variety of solutions when new parts are no longer available.
“Sometimes they are a simple component that we can’t buy but we can make something to do the job that is stronger and more reliable. Sometimes we backward engineer it, work out what that chip does and we make a replacement, or we make a circuit board that replaces the function of a chip,” Rex said.
“That’s happened many times over the years, with Porsche, Volvo, Saab and Mercedes Benz, where you have a fairly expensive engine computer and there’s a particular component you can’t buy.”
That ingenuity has opened export markets in many European countries such as Holland, Germany, England and France, in addition to America, China and Thailand.
Surprisingly, for such a high-tech industry, just opening the computer boxes can be one of IM Group’s greatest challenges.
“It is certainly a challenge to get into some ECUs quickly and not damage anything when you’re opening them up, because sometimes they are bonded together and they aren’t designed for remanufacture or repair,” Rex said.
“So, we have had to design various presses and jigs, even high-speed milling machines that cut through the resin and get inside some of these computers.”
IM Group has also designed and built some innovative diagnostic equipment.
“We have made all sorts of dedicated test equipment over the years. To test a unit, we need to simulate the inputs of the engine computer and then measure the responses coming out,” Rex said.
“More than 10 years ago, we started to design and build what we call a Virtual Automotive Simulator. You can’t buy these testers off the shelf. We have had to design all the hardware and do all the software programming ourselves as well. We have them throughout our production area, but we also sell them overseas to other companies like us.
“Over the years we have won several awards for the equipment we have designed, from simple special jigs to open up various engine computers, to very elaborate testing stations as well.”
Even with this specialist equipment, testing can be a laborious task.
“It often takes several weeks for one of our engineers to design a diagnostic test and to wire up all the looms. Sometimes we might ask the customer to send down their key, immobiliser, body control module, and instrument cluster, because all of those things are part of the immobiliser system,” Rex said.
“We then connect it to our Virtual Automotive Simulator and the computer automatically goes through and tests all the functions of that engine computer to make sure it’s okay.”
While remaining on top of ever evolving technology is undoubtedly a challenge, Rex also sees it as a competitive advantage.
“When electronics were fairly simple there were quite a few people in the industry. Twenty years ago, you just needed a soldering iron and often you soldered a few joints or replaced a transistor. You could have a multimeter and just measure a few components, but now it’s becoming increasingly more complex,” Rex explained.
“We now have had to buy a $200,000 ultrasonic wire bonder to be able to repair many of the computers and we have had to constantly reinvest in R&D.”
Given the rate of industry change, we asked Rex if the future excited or scared him.
“I think both,” he replied. “If you go back to the early 1900s, there were horses running around everywhere, and within 10 years they were replaced and there were cars everywhere. I think the rate of change people saw back then is similar to what people are going to see now with electric vehicles.
“It’s been a very slow uptake in Australia so far, but electric vehicles will ramp up without a doubt. We are excited about what’s around the corner because there is going to be more and more electronics to service and repair.”
The recent sale of the business to GUD Automotive has opened up more opportunity, not only through investment and other resources, but also by adding complimentary products to the IM Group range.
While you might expect Rex to go and enjoy a well-earned retirement, nothing could be further from the truth.
“GUD has asked me to stay on – I will while I still enjoy it and can add some value,” he said.
“I still have a great passion for cars and electronics, and I would love to see this business really start growing with the help of GUD.
“They certainly see electric and autonomous vehicles coming, and they want to ensure that they have solutions for the repair and replacement of components for these high-tech vehicles. The plan is to make sure that we focus on what’s coming in the future, not necessarily what we’ve got right now.
“Having said that, we are already starting to repair some of the parts in electric vehicles like the Prius and the Camry hybrids. All the guys here at IM group are excited about the future and looking forward to seeing GUD assist IM group in not only just growing, but ensuring we continue to lead the market in our field.”
While expertise, ingenuity and dedication have played a large part in IM Group’s success, Rex also acknowledged the part AAAA has played in making the business what it is today.
“AAAA has been very helpful over the years because 15 years ago we really didn’t understand the industry at all,” he said.
“Becoming members of the AAAA, and then going to the various functions and meetings they had, certainly opened my eyes to the industry and what’s out there. They have helped us to go to some overseas trade shows and to go on some of the trade missions. That has been very helpful to us as a company.
“Being recognised with multiple AAAA industry awards over the last 10 years has been very humbling and assisted IM group industry awareness and reputation.
“Being now part of the strong GUD family alongside industry leading brands such as Ryco, Narva, Projecta, Goss and Wesfill will assist IM group in its growth, by taking advantage of future technologies and opportunities.
“We are now part of a much larger family now, but up to only a couple of months ago we were very small and independent. It has been really valuable to have the assistance of the AAAA over the years, and we look forward to continuing our strong support of the AAAA.”
For more on the IM Group, visit www.im-group.com.au