'Rolling stock builders are taking too large a risk at the start of projects', warns Marc Granger, President of French train seat manufacturer Compin. Cutting corners today 'will hit them later', five to 10 years into the life cycle of the rolling stock.

'SEATS ARE A SMALL part of the cost of a new train. An extra 5% on the cost of a seat is very little on a contract, but lowers the risk in the long term.' Granger says he is 'concerned about customers not taking into account the future problems', and emphasises that 'they should not focus on the initial price alone'.

Although Compin seats might not always offer the lowest first cost, Granger believes they prove their worth in the longer term, as a result of the extensive experience the company has built up. 'We have knowledge and ability in the market. We are able to speak about technical matters, design matters and artistic requirements.'

Compin has supplied more than 4·5 million seats since it was established in 1902. Two factories in Normandie employ around 250 people, producing around 105 000 train and tram seats a year, plus 25 000 for buses, ships and military vehicles. Around 40% are exported, and turnover in 2005 was €55m. 'We are the largest railway manufacturer in Europe, and thus worldwide, in this market', says Granger, who was Rolling Stock Director at Alstom before he acquired Compin from Balloffet Group and a private investor in June 2005, backed by Hexagone, an investment fund of LBO France.

Train builders are entrusting their suppliers with more responsibility for sub-systems, and Compin is able to take on specialist requirements, such as the exceptionally strict standards applicable in the UK. Weight-saving magnesium-based components used in seats supplied to SNCF are forbidden in Britain, and a particular challenge is posed by the requirement for high-backed but stiff seats which will constrain passengers in a collision. 'We have got the experience and knowledge', says Granger.

Compin's head office and 12 000 m2 main production site is in Evreux, where a plant that now employs 166 people opened in 1998. A 10 000 m2 plant in Brionne has 82 staff undertaking renovation work and producing the company's patented vandal-resistant seating, as well as seats for road and maritime use.

Investing in design

'We invest a lot in engineering', says Granger, 'it is a significant part of our added value'. Compin has a dedicated prototype workshop, a section of the Evreux factory filled with seats and components, some displaying the results of fire safety trials in a special testing chamber.

In opposite corners of the workshop stand two elaborate testing machines. Every few seconds one of these mechanical contraptions pushes down a flip-up seat and thumps it with a weight representing a passenger before releasing it, providing accelerated testing of the life of the spring mechanism. A second machine tests cushions and fabrics for the effect of repeated off-centre loading of the corners, using a metal casting shaped to represent that part of the passenger in contact with the seat.

Compin designs and assembles its seats, but all components are made by sub-suppliers. 'Our core business is not in manufacturing the different elements', explains Granger. 'It is managing the logistics constraints from the vast number of suppliers. Our ability is to design, specify, and get the right parts, of the right quality, at the right time.'

Processes which are essential to quality and consistency are carried out in-house, including painting, gluing and production of the company's own vandal-resistant seat coverings. The Nappe 2000 design was developed in 1980 to meet an RATP requirement for RER trains, and uses a steel mesh to provide protection against slashing. It has proved popular with other urban operators, and more than 850 000 vandal-resistant seats have been supplied over the past 20 years.

Refurbishment of existing seats and replacement seating for existing trains forms 56% of Compin's business, against 44% for new build. The biggest market is western Europe, but Compin has supplied seats to operators in Australia and Japan where it has a local agent. Seats have also been produced under licence in South Korea, Portugal and South Africa.

In the past seats were custom-designed for specific projects, and this service remains for customers who require it. But over the last three years Compin has been moving towards offering families of generic seating products which can be customised at a lower cost than the production of a bespoke design.

These families are designed around the needs of different journey times, rather than the purpose of the journey, with four families covering urban (up to 30 min), commuter (1 h) regional (2 h) and inter-city (more than 2 h). Anti-vandalism measures are among the options which can be selected.

All seats need to end up as a compromise between price, specification and weight, and despite the modularisation there is still a lot of customisation. Possibly too much, suggests Granger, as this inevitably drives up the cost to the end user. 'We never sell the same seat to two different customers', he adds, 'which makes our lives interesting!'

  • Caption: Compin assembles seats at Evreux using components produced by external sub-suppliers
  • Caption: Painting and gluing are carried out in-house, to ensure consistent quality
  • Caption: The third generation TGV seats are supported on a central pillar which contain the reading lights and other services, with a single fixing to the floor. The asymmetric design of the seats is intended to give passengers a sense of being in their own personal space. First class seats have padded pillow 'ears'

The Compin story

1902 Established in Courbevoie to manufacture seat upholstery

1955 Production moves to Brionne to increase capacity

1972 Compin supplies seats for the TGV 001 experimental trainset

1980 Patent filed for Nappe 2000 vandal-resistant seat

1998 Major production works moves to new factory in Evreux

2003 Contract to supply third generation seats for TGV trains signed

2005 Takeover of by Marc Granger and LBO Financial Partner