Shades Technics: Engineering a niche

Shades Technics supplies bespoke toilets and kitchenettes for coaches. We visit the supplier’s base in Hertfordshire, and speak to the management team on its recent work

Excellent customer experience is at the heart of modal shift onto shared transport, and one essential area that shouldn’t be overlooked (particularly on long journeys) is passenger hygiene.

The management team at Shades Technics understand this. The company designs and manufactures toilets and kitchenettes for coach and bus, with an emphasis on specialist engineered products not available elsewhere.

Items the company has designed itself include a combined sink and tank in one toilet cubicle, removing the need for a separate grey water tank; a baby-change facility; and (after a £20,000 investment into tooling) injection moulded toilet bowls.

Director Louis Merhemitch emphasises that Shades Technics isn’t about low-cost, but about engineering things in a way that makes them consistent and scalable. A look at one product reveals that. With Scandinavian influences and sandwiched LED strips, Shades’ toilets have all the touches that speak to this as a premium offering.

Organic growth

The business was founded in Potters Bar as a crash repair facility by Charles Merhemitch in the 1970s. It moved into supplying VHS and Betamax machines for coaches, caravan toilets and drinks-making facilities, and even became a Van Hool repair agent. The business relocated to Hertford in 1988, and would gradually evolve away from repair and retrofit into OEM supply, with the first shift to Plaxton, Berkhof and Jonkheere, and the second to Volvo, after a large order for the latter’s Mexican market at the turn of the century.

For the UK market and Western Europe, work is split between complete toilet cubicles and kitchenettes. At the highest in terms of its scope of supply, Shades can supply a toilet cubicle with kitchenette and centre staircase, fully plumbed and wired. It worked closely with Plaxton on a particular product which could be installed directly into a coach, removing some 40 hours of installation time. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some companies buy the basic system – such as pump assembly, bowls and tanks – and integrate those into their own offering. Anything between is also possible.

Refinement of these products follows a move into non-European markets 20 to 25 years ago, where Shades found itself competing against lower labour rates and greater volumes, and so manufactured toolings and shipped units to manufacturers to assemble the unit according to individual specifications. Knock-down kits account for about 50% of its business and the company has grown on the back of the expansion. Mexico has proved a particularly important market: With minimal rail infrastructure and expensive air travel, coach is king, accounting for an annual demand for coaches which “exceeds the whole of Europe”, according to Director Leo Merhemitch. One year, Shades struck a deal to supply 1,000 vehicles from a single operator. In addition to increasing its volumes, Shades was able to invest in processes which engineer a more suitable and functional product.

Work with operators

Some of Shades’ most recent work includes toilet installations for Ember’s battery-electric Yutong TCe12 fleet. Collaborating with Ember has presented a slightly different way of working for Shades, and one which may represent a return to a grassroots approach similar to how the business operated when first founded.

Ember was operating two vehicles at the time it approached Shades, and since it is difficult to specify a vehicle with a Shades toilet directly from a manufacturer without the necessary volumes, the two companies began working side-by-side instead.

That partnership happened at the right time, according to Leo, since a slowdown during the pandemic meant Shades was able to offer higher capacity and engineering input into the project. Leo is hopeful that may lead to a relationship with the vehicle dealer down the line, particularly as zero-emission vehicles grow in popularity. If Yutong does not see fit to manufacture a toilet due to low demand, buyers and the dealer at least know that an option does now exist. That would suit Shades, which favours serial production: “While we’re able to carry out the work on-site, for higher volume serial production it would be more time and cost effective for the units to be installed either at the factory or at the dealership. This would provide efficiencies for Shades, whoever is carrying out the installation and the end user.”

That would also give Shades an opportunity to demonstrate how it can work closely with a dealer, if it finds the right match. “We’re not scared of doing a short production run, or one-offs,” Leo says. “I like to think that’s where we have engineered a niche for ourselves. We are not asking for large volumes – we are trying to be flexible by using the equipment we have available. Often a space might be slightly different, but we can almost make a hybrid out of various different products we have to make something work, but that looks integrated. Having a product that looks like it accompanied the vehicle out of the factory is important to us.”

Relationships matter

Aftersales support is equally important. Whenever Shades does work with a large operator, it does not simply supply units to the builder. It has preliminary meetings beforehand from a design perspective, offers training, and puts stock in place within the operator’s depot, so that there is equipment available in the event of anything going wrong.

“If those vehicles are on the road 20 hours a day, they have something to replace components with,” says Leo. “It’s in everybody’s favour to have that support all the way through from initial sale to after sale. We recognise that a new vehicle is often somebody’s pride and joy – the operator is involved with the specification for that vehicle. It’s important not to forget that.”

The work with Ember is a good example, as Shades reveals the coach operator’s co-founder Keith Bradbury had a strong vision for what he wanted. That momentum carried the project forward. Other competitors would simply take a product off the shelf, and Keith had approached Shades after finding it difficult sourcing a supplier to deliver a product he wanted on the scale necessary.

“Keith wanted to hit the market with a unique product for his vehicle, and the service that he provided,” says Shades Engineering Manager Lindsay Patmore. “When we showed him what we could do, he became interested. We give our customers what they need, and we can do it all in house. That’s the beauty of it. there aren’t many people that can do that. We have him on e-mail, WhatsApp, and photos are regularly updated. We just had to get past the question of whether what we can provide is right for him.”

That approach has led to strong relationships through the company’s history. Shades Technics is now the sole supplier to Plaxton and VDL, while also supplying kits to Van Hool, Sunsundegui, Irizar, MCV and Volvo in Mexico.

“Generally speaking, if we can engage directly with our customer base, we retain and build on that relationship in the future,” Louis says. “Because we are passionate about it. Hopefully that is visible with what we have developed.”