SEATING: Transport Seating

Video by: 2016-05-04T00:00:00


Things are looking up for and Australian-based bus and coach seating supplier

SEATING: Transport Seating
The popularity of two-for-three designs has grown steadily

On the cusp of the two-for-three seating revolution and reaping the benefits of a buoyant domestic coach tours market, things are looking up for Australian-based bus and coach seating suppliers in 2016.

The reality is that those still manufacturing their seats in Australia have to sell a lot of seats just to cover their costs and a lot more still to actually turn a profit.

Transport Seating (TST) managing director Rod Ferguson realised this early on and has embraced the future, without trying to resist the shift towards imported seats.

"I work smarter by buying all of my components and having my bus seats made complete in China," he says.

"Twenty years ago I had 35 staff, then seven years ago I went down to ten, after I made the decision to have my seats made complete off shore, and now we have scaled down to just three employees."

Ferguson gets much satisfaction from the fact he designed many of the seats that he is now having made in China, and is making money off the rights to the design by licence agreement, every time a unit of his design is sold collecting royalties.

"I’ve done two license agreements and essentially licensed the right to bus seats I originally designed to manufacturers overseas," Ferguson says.

"That helps the business a lot, because it means I get a royalty payment every month.

"I’m also looking at signing another license agreement later this year, where there could be up to 1000 x 2 passenger seats made every two weeks."

Ferguson learnt that from a consultant who was working for him in 2009 and helping him turn the business around, this model has been key to the business ever since.

In his view, having huge amounts of staff and doing it all here in Australia just wasn’t sustainable in the long term.

This change of tack came about almost by accident when Ferguson was invited by Austrade to Singapore to look at supplying seats for operators there.

There was an enormous amount of buses that needed seats over the next five years.

A child was killed in a bus accident in November 2008, and automatically the Land Transport Authority (LTA) made it a requirement by law for all buses to have seatbelts up to a certain weight.

"I was only Seat manufacture in Australian to get approval, but there was also a Malaysian company and a Spanish seat company," Ferguson says.

"We were the only three that got approval, they needed 6,500 buses over five years and I thought - were just a small company, how are we going to tackle this?

"There was just no way that I could I make that many seats in such a short space of time.

"So I went to China, even though it’s fair to say I was sort of anti-China at that time."

Ferguson was in a conundrum and a little conflicted, but he put his preconceptions aside and explored his options in finding a Chinese manufacturer he could trust.

"I went to Guangzhou and found the best seat factory in China for manufacturing our Bus seats.

"I was really impressed and so that’s who I decided to work with to supply the seats to Singapore

"This seat factory in China manufactures 45,000 seats a month, including buses, theatre and airport seating and they have 800 employees.

"You’ve got to make sure the company that’s involved are professional and produce seats to a high standard.

"There are good companies and bad companies in China, so you have to find someone you can trust to work with.

"The cost of our labour in Australia is very high, so I believe the only alternative is to use [the Chinese manufacturer’s] system.

"They can make a set of seats in one to two weeks, whereas here it would take us five or six weeks.

"I can have them ordered and with the customer within six weeks easy."

Ferguson has two different suppliers in China so that if one is super busy, he can approach the other and his customers aren’t kept waiting and this gives him the flexibility that he needs to keep business ticking along smoothly.

OPPORTUNITIES AND LIMITATIONS

The organisation does manufacture marine seats from its Landsborough factory in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, but the bus seats is where it all stared for Ferguson and bus and coach seating is still a major focus.

"I only have three employees now and two subcontractors; a trimmer and a machinist working here on the marine seats.

"We just did 14, 43-seat mining buses for Thailand and the seats are supplied straight from China to Thailand."

Business is good and the organisation is gradually getting more orders from Fiji, New Zealand, Malaysia and Thailand as well.

"We’d be doing 15,000 seats a year, that’s bus and including the marine."

Despite what Ferguson describes as a slow start, the two-for-three seats are really starting to take off for the organisation now.

"Transport Seating has sold seven sets of 57/83 passenger seats in March alone - two sets in Melbourne, two in Brisbane and three in Perth.

"I created my original design for the three-two seating back in the 1990s and it’s still very popular."

The TST’s standard ‘extreme’ double seats cost about $20,000, whereas the two-for-three seats cost about $25,000 to fit out what would otherwise be a 57-seater.

So the difference in cost it’s not that much, for a greatly improved seated passenger count.

"Although it’s started off very slowly I think the two-for-three seats will take off like a rocket.

"There are some two-for-three seat designs that are well priced but not practical.

"Cost, quality and design are important issues when the operators are choosing there seating.

"The marine industry is just the opposite; they are always looking for the latest and greatest designs and technology because they are willing to pay for it."

The biggest benefit to paying a bit more to fit out a bus or coach is weight savings, which translate into fuel savings.

"I’ve designed a double bus seat that’s only weights 18 kilograms – using the same materials I use in the marine industry, but the bus operators don’t seem willing to pay the additional cost for it, even though it brings their total weight and fuel consumption down over the whole of life.

"A regular double bus seat weighs around 30 kilograms, so it makes a big difference.

"The main area this design came from is my knowledge or marine and testing the use of different materials."

Operators don’t seem to realise the benefits of having light seats, but Ferguson reckons they could save a lot in fuel consumption in the long run – especially if try to get the lightest units for all the other components.

"That’s the direction the industry should be headed, there are a lot better and much lighter materials that could be used.

"It’s just that because the initial outlay cost is more, if you have the lightest bus you can save x amount a year.

"This is exactly what the aircraft and marine industry are doing right now."

He’s also just imported a fully-plastic seat, that’s for marine but that he plans to offer it to city-route bus operators.

With this design - he uses aluminium which has a chrome finish, rather than the traditional steel with the powder-coat finish at the base of the bus seat.

PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

Although the Australian bus industry is less personalised than it used to be, Ferguson enjoys interacting with the characters within it and has a lot of good memories.

What keeps Ferguson going is knowing that his 53 year industry experience allows him to come up with unique and useful bus and coach seat designs.

With orders coming in thick and fast thanks to a buoyant economy and a reputation for excellent design, this organisation that dared to embrace the future has plenty of gas left in the tank and a lot of hope for the future of the bus seating industry, but glory is reserved for those who dare to be innovative in the years ahead.

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