THE UK’S largest orthodontic laboratory is celebrating its 20th birthday – while recruiting more staff and fitting out huge new, state-of-the-art premises.

Twenty years ago, Managing Director Sean Thompson started Ashford Orthodontics from his garage while working in the orthodontic and oral facial department of Sunderland Royal Hospital. After leaving the hospital, he was joined in 2005 by directors Craig Stevens, from Sunderland, and Graeme Winyard, from Durham, two experienced orthodontic and dental technicians.

“Back in the late 1990s there was a shortage in the provision of specialised orthodontic lab work which meant specialists sending work to non-specialised labs,” explained Sean

“The hospital couldn’t take in external work because it wasn’t registered with the MHRA – and I saw an opportunity. I realised I had quite a rare skill and decided to set up a ‘one-man lab’ in my garage at home,” he added.

Now the company supplies clients around the world and employs 65 people from its premises in Southwick, Sunderland. Ashford is in the process of recruiting five more people while doubling the size of its facility at Southwick Industrial Estate to 24,000sq ft.

“I’m very proud we’ve come so far from starting in my garage on an evening and at weekends to the country’s largest orthodontic laboratory. What’s particularly pleasing is that so many of our team – and clients – have stayed with us. We owe huge thanks to the staff who’ve made us so successful, particularly the likes of Dave Newton, Paul Newton, Jeff Sanderson, Dan Connolly and Martin Murphy who’ve been with us since our first lab opened,” said Sean.

Ashford has commissioned Dunelm Glass to create glassware as a way of thanking many of their longstanding clients and staff.

“We’re still ambitious and we still believe there’s plenty of opportunity for further growth. We’re currently working with our long-term partner Sunderland College to bring in two new apprentices while also looking to fill three other key roles in admin, digital and production, ” said Sean.

Born in Jarrow, Sean attended school in Hebburn and worked in his brother-in-law’s dental lab before studying orthodontics at Newcastle College. He worked in private orthodontic and dental labs with his ten years of training culminating in a unique qualification from Manchester University with a post-graduate diploma in maxillofacial prosthetics and technology while employed as senior orthodontic and maxillofacial medical technical officer at Sunderland Royal Hospital.

Recognising a gap in the market, Sean launched Ashford Orthodontics in 2001. After Craig and Graeme joined to become directors, the company moved into premises in Frederick Street, Sunderland. Rapid expansion followed and Ashford quickly relocated to larger premises in Norfolk Street in Sunderland city centre.

In 2017, the company moved into a new 12,000sq ft laboratory on Southwick Industrial Estate, Sunderland, to accommodate further expansion of the business, which had grown significantly thanks to its investment into 3D digital technology. Last year Ashford acquired the former Gelders premises next door and is currently fitting out the whole site – doubling their production space in preparation for the next phase of growth.

“We understood the potential of 3D printers and scanners early on – investment was a risk as we bought 3D printers and they cost £140,000, and this was before dentists were really ready to send us scans. But we understood the fundamental change in the way the sector was going and the opportunities offered by digital innovation.

“Dental practices take scans of people’s mouths and send them to us electronically from anywhere in the world. We then create 3D models of people’s teeth using a 3D printer and we then manufacture the appliances here in Sunderland,” explained Sean.

“We are at the forefront of the digital transformation in orthodontics, with a designated 3D scanning and printing suite run by digital technologists. However, our fully-qualified team is also vastly experienced in the more traditional aspects of orthodontic manufacturing, currently securing more than 40 per cent of the NHS orthodontic laboratory provision in the UK.

“So much has changed in the 20 years since we started, but quality remains at the forefront of everything we do. Neither have our fundamental core values changed since 2001 – we continue to provide the best quality product at the best possible price with exceptional customer service.”

Although the worldwide pandemic prompted a temporary slowdown as dentists across the world closed their doors, Ashford is now back in full production, with more than 15,000 retainers being sent out to clients every month.

“During the first lockdown, we were closed for three months, but everyone is back now, working in a rigidly-enforced Covid secure environment. We retained all our team and it was great to welcome them all back when it was safe to do so,” said Sean.

In summer last year, Ashford became part of the emerging and ambitious ALS group which has already acquired four of the UK’s most specialised dental and orthodontic labs, with plans to add another five to ten per year to firmly become the number one dental laboratory group in the UK.

“We’re excited to be part of ALS – we’re planning something huge in the long term and it’s great to be part of its formation. All four labs – and there will be some more added very soon – are cut from the same cloth and share the same values. We’re all experts in our own fields,” said Sean.

Ashford’s extensive client base is now both national and international. Clinicians in The Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand now use Ashford Orthodontics’ digital capabilities to place orders for the company’s leading orthodontic appliances, especially with clear aligners being in huge demand globally at present.

For more information visit www.ashfordorthodontics.co.uk.