Were it not for the workers’ hi-vis tabards and the occasional fork-lift truck, we could almost be inside Mission Control, Houston – or Europe’s biggest branch of PC World.
Stretching out into the distance is row upon row of computer screens – vast banks of them – and they are all showing exactly the same thing: nothing at all.
Welcome to Britain’s biggest brainwashing operation – literally. For this is where thousands of computers come every day to be erased, rebooted and reborn.
Were it not for the workers’ hi-vis tabards and the occasional fork-lift truck, we could almost be inside Mission Control, Houston – or Europe’s biggest branch of PC World. Robert Hardman is pictured above in front of some of the computers
This 355,000 square feet of factory floor is also where Mail Force’s brilliant new Computers for Kids campaign is fast becoming a reality.
Whatever a computer may have been used for in a previous existence, it leaves this place without a past and ready to begin a new life. And in the case of the thousands of laptops being donated to our campaign, that means helping children all over Britain.
In just a matter of days, we have seen a phenomenal response to the latest call to arms by Mail Force, the charity founded by this newspaper at the start of the pandemic.
This is a twin-pronged appeal – for both donations and computer equipment. With a donation of £15, we could transform a laptop from a business tool into an educational godsend.
There are still hundreds of thousands of families in the country who desperately need a device that allows their children remote access to the school day.
Whatever a computer may have been used for in a previous existence, it leaves this place without a past and ready to begin a new life
Staff at the Department for Education have been working round the clock to deliver tablets to those in need (at one point, in recent days, the DfE actually became the world’s number one purchaser of laptop equipment).
However, as we found with personal protective equipment (PPE) earlier in the pandemic, Britain is competing with the rest of the world for a finite amount. And speed is of the essence.
So, as with our previous campaigns, we want to lend added support to the DfE’s great push, while, crucially, not competing against our own side.
This clean – and surprisingly quiet – factory is helping us do just that. It is expanding, too, with new (Covid-compliant) work bays and benches being installed and new staff being hired – all thanks to your generosity.
In the course of every year, UK bosses need to update millions of pieces of computer equipment. And in many cases, their old kit can still make an invaluable, life-enhancing difference to a child.
That is why we want to direct discarded machinery here to this state-of-the-art renovation facility in Braintree, Essex, for the ultimate reboot.
For more than 20 years, this division of Computacenter has been cleaning, erasing and reviving nearly a million units a year for British companies and public bodies (its very first customer for recycling, appropriately enough, was the Environment Agency).
This clean – and surprisingly quiet – factory is helping us do just that. It is expanding, too, with new (Covid-compliant) work bays and benches being installed and new staff being hired – all thanks to your generosity
Once devices have been scrubbed, the owners have three options: they can redeploy a computer within their own organisation, they can sell it to third parties or, if it is obsolete or damaged, it will be pulped.
This factory uses a system that recycles almost everything in the average computer and sends just 0.5 per cent of it to landfill.
Now, though, customers have a highly recommended fourth option: sending their kit to Computers for Kids.
As long as unwanted laptops conform to the criteria set by the Department for Education, they can have the slate wiped clean here before being handed over to a child.
Guiding me around the site, managing director Gerry Hackett explains that security is key to every step of the process. His customers include some of Britain’s best-known financial names and public bodies, all of which regard data as sacrosanct.
As long as unwanted laptops conform to the criteria set by the Department for Education, they can have the slate wiped clean here before being handed over to a child
‘The vast majority of the equipment we collect ourselves, with our own fleet and our own staff,’ he said.
‘It’s all scanned on collection and again on arrival so we know exactly where it is in our system.’
There is steel fencing around the 22-acre site and airport-style security for staff. They are a long-serving lot. I don’t meet anyone who has been here less than five years. But everyone has to be checked in and out none the less.
Companies will only send their equipment here if they can be wholly confident that old data is going to be securely destroyed.
‘We have had security teams from famous high street banks who have turned up unannounced to conduct spot checks. After months of testing, they were happy enough to keep working with us,’ said Gerry.
On our way through to the shop floor, he points out the company’s three Queen’s Awards – one for innovation, one for sustainability and one for international trade – signed by three successive prime ministers, Messrs Blair, Brown and Cameron.
A plaque on the wall outside shows that this place was actually opened by an earlier PM, Margaret Thatcher, back in its days as a double-glazing factory.
As a former education secretary, she would surely be thrilled by what is happening here now.
Down in the goods bay, warehouse technician Paul is unloading a new vanload of laptops from a well-known public transport operation. Each one is logged and placed in a large cardboard box with letterbox-style slots for each unit.
Every machine is wiped down with disinfectant ahead of transfer to the vast reprocessing hall. Here laptops are laid out along broad benches, 32 at a time, and all are plugged in to the mains and to a cable that eliminates everything on the hard drive.
The system, a Finnish process called Blancco, eliminates data memory rather like industrial-strength bleach. Apparently, it is the same gizmo used by Nato.
It takes about 20 minutes for each machine to be fully lobotomised, whereupon a big tick appears on the screen (any computer that does not show a tick is automatically expelled from the process, has its hard drives removed and is safely destroyed).
Then it’s time for a clean on the outside. Every keyboard gets a thorough going-over. Compressed air is used to flush out any obstinate crumbs still lingering beneath the space bar after a messy al desko lunch years before.
Every scratch and blemish will be noted and the machine then receives a three-part grading for the quality of its screen, keyboard and outer casing, rated from A (for excellent) to D (appalling).
I meet Angie, a technician who has been doing this for seven years. She is giving a silver HP Elitebook from a high street bank the full treatment. Verdict: C-B-B. I have to say it looks a lot smarter than my own.
At the far end of the building, new benches, wiring and plugs are being installed to help cope with the Mail Force operation. Because of the element of urgency, the campaign needs to turn around these machines at speed and Computacenter is wasting no time.
Supermarket leads the way
One of the first firms to rally to Mail Force’s Computers for Kids initiative was Sainsbury’s.
The supermarket chain donated 2,000 laptops, worth £440,000, and a cheque for £30,000. The devices are being handled by Computacenter, our IT partner, and will soon join a consignment going to schools across the country.
Simon Roberts, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, said: ‘We are proud to support Mail Force’s Computers for Kids.
‘Access to education is crucial and we want to ensure kids in the communities we serve have the tools they need to join classes online.’
As the former education secretary Lord Blunkett explained on these pages last Saturday, ‘getting the right technology into every home must be an immediate priority’.
Every parent knows how a child can lag behind just by missing a few days of school through illness. Extrapolate that across many months, apply it to some of the poorest children in society and we can all see the need for speed.
From here, the machines are transferred to Computacenter’s headquarters in nearby Hatfield, Hertfordshire, for dispatch. This is an even more modern complex, built on the spot where the boffins of de Havilland built the Mosquito in the Second World War. It boasts what is believed to be the largest rooftop solar panel system in the land.
This digitally automated monster warehouse brings in and sends out up to 100,000 units a day, most of them brand new. We spot several pallets of Dell laptops ordered by the Department for Education and now on their way to families all over the country by courier. I look at a few addresses at random – Devon, Essex, Yorkshire…
I imagine the look on recipients’ faces when someone turns up at the door with one of these boxes.
Upstairs, a vast open-plan configuration area is full of laptops being pre-loaded with standard government-approved software. Many schools like to do it themselves, but Computacenter can do it here prior to dispatch.
This same system is geared up and ready to go as soon as the first Mail Force computers have been prepared.
Back in Braintree, meanwhile, Gerry Hackett’s staff have one polite request. They don’t mind crumbs in the keyboard. They can clean the grubbiest screen. But for some reason, up to half of previous owners have a curious habit of handing in their laptops without the plug.
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