Helping to bridge a supply crisis in the UK dental market, The Growth Fund has supported Sunderland-based Ashford Orthodontics on its journey to becoming a full-scale manufacturer with a £200,000 grant, part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).
With skilled technicians becoming scarce in the UK, the availability of dental products such as crowns, bridges, dentures, aligners and retainers for patients is under threat. As traditionally labour-intensive products to make, the skills shortage has pushed costs higher, and many customers have turned to international suppliers.
Ashford is part of the growing ALS Group, which aims to reverse this trend by introducing innovative manufacturing methods to positively disrupt and transform the industry, reducing costs and keeping skilled work in the UK.
Commercial Director of Ashford Orthodontics, Rich Dodds, was referred to The Growth Fund by Sunderland City Council when he approached them about plans for a £1.1m project to begin transforming the company’s handcraft dental lab into a full-scale manufacturer.
Traditionally, Ashford’s focus has been on supplying around 25% of the NHS practices across the UK and private dental practices, providing retainers for use after a patient has had their braces removed.
And while the company was also producing some aligners which gradually change the position of a patient’s teeth, the volume of this work was low and labour-intensive, and the team didn’t have the technology needed to scale up and meet increasing market demand for aligners.
Rich explains: “We knew the market was there and that we could do the work by hand, but we knew that wasn’t sustainable for scaling up while keeping costs down and delivering a consistently high-quality product.
“We identified three different areas of our production process where we could introduce automation to scale our work. We bought more advanced thermoforming machinery, five 3D large scale printers and two automated aligner trimming machines.”
This investment has created 18 new jobs including an engineering manager and an operations development manager, as well as several 3D printing roles.
Importantly, it has also freed up the team’s highly skilled technicians to focus more on the computer-aided design and manufacture (CAD-CAM) of the company’s bespoke products.
Each product is unique because each patient’s mouth is unique. This presents a real challenge for producing at scale.
Rich continues: “For us, introducing automation isn’t about replacing people with machines. It’s about enhancing people’s jobs and allowing them to develop in different ways that also enables us to scale.
“There are aspects of the process that you could never automate because it needs our team’s skills and experience, and we always value that. Our team are seeing the benefits, commenting that they don’t know how they used to do without this technology before.”
As a result of the project, Ashford has won work with a large, fast-growing client, which means that it is already seeing a return on its investment, with increased revenue and job creation.
“With this client, we have scaled up production of aligners over the last year from a few thousand to between 17,000 and 20,000 a month,” Rich adds. “I believe this now makes us the biggest UK manufacturer by volume.
“Once our second trimming machine is fully operational, we’ll go from producing 250 to 900 aligners per shift.”
While working with The Growth Fund, Rich says he has appreciated his adviser’s support and would recommend a chat with The Growth Fund team, which draws on the expertise of UMi project advisers and UNW LLP, a Newcastle-based chartered accountancy and business advisory firm, to guide applicants through the grant process.
The Commercial Director says: “The team were supportive from day one. They demonstrated a lot of skill in listening, understanding our business, and asking the right questions. They were on the journey with us the whole way.
“Applying to The Growth Fund is a no-brainer. If you have a compelling business case that will create more jobs and bring in more revenue, then my advice is to go for it. The grant massively reduces the risk, which for us was helpful for convincing our board to go ahead.
“I would advise other companies to think about what they need ahead of beginning their application, to help the process go smoothly.”
With demand soaring and the right machinery and staff in place to scale up production, the future is looking bright for Ashford.
The company is now in talks with several companies looking to bring production back to the UK from Germany, China, India and the US, as Ashford is now able to compete with international manufacturers.
Rich concludes: “We’re at the start of our journey to becoming a global aligner manufacturer and we have ambitions to be the biggest in Europe in the next three to five years. We have now reached semi-automation thanks to this investment and the support from The Growth Fund.
“As we become more experienced with automation, our next steps are to make it a real production line, increase its efficiency by eliminating waste, and potentially run multiple shifts.
“In future, we can transfer this experience to other products such as our retainers. We currently produce 12,000 to 15,000 of these each month by hand. There’s a lot of potential.”
Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “Sunderland is home to so many phenomenally innovative businesses, and Ashford Orthodontics is certainly one of them. It’s fantastic to see them accessing the support available to unlock their vast potential and accelerate their growth and development. We look forward to seeing their continued growth, as they look to exploit the opportunities provided by automation.”
The Growth Fund Senior Project Manager, Mike Baker, said: “Ashford’s bold vision for becoming an orthodontics manufacturer by embracing new technologies is a great example of how you can unlock growth even when your product is bespoke.
“I would encourage any company in Gateshead, South Tyneside or Sunderland with an ambition to grow through a capital investment project to get in touch with our team by phone: 0191 716 1010, or email: email@example.com.”
Lara Marshall, Grant Support Services Manager at UNW, said: “We are delighted to be part of the grant funding scheme which delivers funding to ambitious companies such as Ashford Orthodontics. The impact of the new technology is bringing in new business, creating new jobs and allowing them to dream big for the future of the company.”