Five decades on from introducing its revolutionary school tray storage system to the market, Gratnells continues to go from strength-to-strength, with further expansion and investment continuing apace
Although it can trace its roots all of the way back to the 1890s, the current Gratnells Company (Gratnells) moved into the education market 50 years ago, in 1971. Back then, it launched its iconic slotted square tube storage frame, which it continues to produce to this day and can be found in almost every school in the UK and in countless other countries – before going on to create the standard shallow plastic storage tray in 1985. This is now considered the standard for the development of most school furniture around the world.
Based in Harlow, Essex, Gratnells today boasts a 110,000-square foot facility, operating 24 hours per day, making it one of, if not the largest manufacturing premises dedicated to the creation of school furniture. In 2017, the company also opened its first international subsidiary in the United States, and it continues to grow internationally, with employees also now based locally in markets across mainland Europe and in the Far East.
Managing Director, Murray Hudson, joined Gratnells in the year 2000. At the time, it was operating from a much smaller property in North London and was turning over approximately £4 million per annum. Just two decades later, and the business has more than tripled in terms of turnover, with over half of its business now being conducted outside of its home market of the UK. Speaking with Manufacturing Today, Murray provides some insight into what has made Gratnells so successful.
“Our core mission as a business is to assist in improving learning environments, which in turn helps to improve educational outcomes,” he explains. “For as long as we have been around, we have been a leader in our field, with the rest of the industry looking to us for the next innovative product or solution. This has created a drive within our own organization to really focus in on what we think will inspire classrooms of the future.
“What we do when it comes to product development is, we assess academically what it is that our clients require within their particular classroom or learning space, and we use that information to design and develop products through our R&D department. From there, we establish the manufacturing process needed for said product here in the UK, and once produced our sales and marketing, and worldwide distribution teams are responsible for getting it out there to those who need it.
“We are quite unique in terms of manufacturing, in that we control the entire process, from product design through to delivery, and we support this through continued investment in our facilities and equipment. In just the first few weeks of 2021, we have spent some £120,000 on a state-of-the-art swift spray line, as well as an additional set of robotic welding systems to replace an older set that had come to the end of its life. We have known for a long time that, in our line of work, unless you have an aggressive and progressive investment policy then you will always be on the back foot, and that is not something anyone can say about Gratnells.”
Returning to the subject of product development, there are numerous examples of Gratnells’ innovative creations that we could reference, but one that Murray brings up is its Learnometer. Designed in association with Professor Stephen Heppell and his research team, the Learnometer enables a user to comprehensively monitor a learning environment by tracking seven key factors that determine air quality, including temperature, humidity, light, sound levels, carbon dioxide and dust.
“We know from experience that for children to perform at their best, that the environment in which they find themselves has to be good,” Murray adds. “This has been brought into much sharper focus during the Covid-19 pandemic, where families have found that bedrooms are not the best place for children to learn within. So, I think there is a much greater understanding developing amongst parents that optimizing the learning environment helps to optimize learning itself. This is where solutions like the Learnometer really do pay off.”
Outside of educational environments, for over 40 years, Gratnells has also been one of the leading suppliers of storage trolleys and frames to hospitals and other healthcare settings. In 2020, the company’s capabilities in this field came into renewed demand thanks to the arrival of Covid-19. It was at the time of the first national lockdown in Spring 2020, that the company began to concentrate its production efforts on its range of medical trolleys, operating continuous shifts at its Harlow factory to meet demand, particularly in light of receiving orders to support the Nightingale Hospitals that were being constructed and kitted out.
The trolleys are used by health professionals for the storage of face masks, gloves and medical instruments, and are protected by an antimicrobial coating that was specially developed by Gratnells. “The Gratnells Antimicrobial System was devised around a decade ago, and it has been available to our clients in all sectors in the time since,” Murray adds. “This system, which protects against the dangers of bacteria and fungi, has received renewed attention given what the world has been through in the past year and more, and we believe that it will continue to be a core product offering of ours for the foreseeable future in both healthcare and educational environments.”
Like other manufacturers around the world, Gratnells utilized some of the time that it had in 2020 to do a comprehensive assessment of how it operates and what it can improve upon in terms of efficiencies, with the intention of building back better in a post-lockdown world. This is likely to have proven to be all the more important as it now embarks on a year that will be influenced by not only the recovery from Covid-19, but also life in a post-Brexit United Kingdom.
“As a result of Brexit, there have been significant barriers erected in terms of moving goods to and from the EU, and sourcing raw materials from the continent, not to mention the various costs associated with this,” Murray describes. “While we are continuing to invest in our engineering division, further expansion going forward is most likely to come outside of the UK. So, we are looking to expand our operations in Europe – with increased recruitment, training and investment to be made within the European Union – as well as into the United States. Those are the markets that we foresee as being more viable long-term for the business.
“It should be stressed, however, that we remain immensely proud to operate what is a modern manufacturing business here in Harlow, and that we firmly feel that the strength of our products and the dedication of our people will help us to serve our customers wherever they may reside for the next 50 years and more.”
Products: Storage trays, frames and associated products