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'Don't be afraid of using robots,' says boss

PUBLISHED: 06:00 18 September 2019 | UPDATED: 08:38 18 September 2019

Dan Croft, MD of Vanilla Electronics, with their new sorting robot. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Dan Croft, MD of Vanilla Electronics, with their new sorting robot. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

From a McLaren supercar to your basic computer, some of the parts will have been made by a Thetford firm which stocks 35,000 different items in its warehouse. Caroline Culot spoke to the MD of Vanilla Electronics, Dan Croft

Unless you are the kind of person who likes to know exactly how something works, you may not appreciate just how many different electronics parts make up, say a computer, a car or even a spaceship.

Yet a rather unassuming firm based on an industrial estate in Mundford Road, Thetford, is rapidly growing a business based around the need for such parts.

Not only does it make them but it stores them too - thousands upon thousands. And bosses have just invested in two 9.6 metre high automated 'lean lift' towers worth £200,000 to do so.

Not only do these robotic towers place items as tiny as a pinhead for a circuit board in the correct storage place in the warehouse but, at the touch of a button, also locates them.

Dan Croft, MD of Vanilla Electronics. Picture: Ella WilkinsonDan Croft, MD of Vanilla Electronics. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

This automated approach to what was a painstaking manual job is slashing the time and effort in storing and retrieving items in the hope of growing the firm further - with a targeted £20m increase in turnover by 2022.

The firm, the brainchild of managing director Dan Croft and his now-retired father Vince, has seen staggering growth since its inception with a 23% upturn in the past year taking its turnover to £11.55m. The firm, which employs 38 people, is paving the way in using automation to help it become more efficient - but not at the expense of jobs.

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Vanilla Electronics. Picture: Ella WilkinsonVanilla Electronics. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Dan, 38, said: "Employees are afraid of automation replacing jobs but if we can become more efficient and more profitable, we can create more jobs."

In fact, by implementing automation, it is enabling Vanilla to train its staff to be able to do more highly-skilled jobs.

It's come a long way since Vanilla's inception in 2002 when it simply bought and sold components - with the internet in the early stages, Dan and his dad bought from around the world and sold in the UK.

Parts in Vanilla Electronics new £200,000 sorting robot. Picture: Ella WilkinsonParts in Vanilla Electronics new £200,000 sorting robot. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

"I was always motivated by sales, rather than technology," said Dan, who went to Notre Dame High School in Norwich and who recently became a father for the fifth time with his partner who also works in the firm. "I was always buying and selling anything, it was always about business. I started working in clothes shops like Hatters in Norwich then worked for an electronics firm in Wymondham where I got my experience.

"My dad, who retired six years ago, had been an apprentice at Marconi in the 1970s, he came from an engineering background."

But they quickly found that their customers wanted more. "Our customers were asking for additional services, they asked us to also manage the manufacturing side - 'can we buy a cable from you?' And now we supply everything." It was that step from being simply a supplier of parts to a manufacturer of them which has seen Vanilla grow by at least 15% year-on-year.

"We've gone from being a small family business to providing a total package, a fulfilment service which is fashionable, this has allowed us to grow much quicker. Rather than supplying two-three components to a customer which might be worth £30,000 a year to us, we are now supplying everything to that same customer which means several hundred thousand pounds a year.

Staff at Vanilla Electronics using the storage towers. Pic: Vanilla ElectronicsStaff at Vanilla Electronics using the storage towers. Pic: Vanilla Electronics

"The business has become more complicated, we are managing a lot more part numbers but we've been smart about it, invested in systems to manage them more than traditional methods and we've got ahead of our competitors through the outsourcing of parts of the business we're not excellent at ourselves - we get other companies to manage that rather than employing a lot of people and trying to do a service and not doing an excellent job."

Interestingly, Thetford has been the perfect location - originally because it was cheaper than a warehouse in Norwich, and now because many of their customers are based in Cambridge.

They have more than 600 businesses as customers with 70-80 active at any one time yet incredibly only have 0.5% of the market share in the UK meaning there is lots more business to go after.

"We design cable assemblies which go into space, marine products which go into boats and the automotive industry is huge because electronics are in most cars," said Dan. "The market has grown, become more interesting and younger. It used to be an old boys' market but technology has become more interesting. It used to be a bit boring and anyone who wanted to work with a computer was a bit of a nerd - now it's cool."

Dan Croft standing by one of the tall automated storage systems. Pic: Vanilla ElectronicsDan Croft standing by one of the tall automated storage systems. Pic: Vanilla Electronics

Inside the warehouse at Vanilla Electronics. Pic: Vanilla ElectronicsInside the warehouse at Vanilla Electronics. Pic: Vanilla Electronics

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