Fri, 15 Jun 2018
Tucked away down an unassuming corridor in a Grade 2* listed Newbury primary school is a labyrinth of rooms that are at the cutting edge of technology.
And now newburytoday has now been given exclusive access to this hidden gem to find out more about the life-changing work it undertakes.
Established in 1997 by Dr Ivan Tucker, the former Principal of the school and Michael Nolan, the then Managing Director at Starkey Laboratories Ltd, Arlington Laboratories has grown into a thriving, global joint venture business with Starkey – and spread itself across more rooms of its Greenham Lodge home.
Just five years later, in 2002, the Hearing Aid Repair Shop or HARS as it is more commonly known, was opened to offer fast, efficient and cost-effective hearing aid repairs.
Claire Dobson, who has been part of the business for nearly 16 years, was our tour guide as we delved deeper into the intrinsic workings of this little-known Newbury laboratory.
Starting off in just one room, the work shop now creates more than 500 moulds – which are then connected to the hearing aid – every day.
“Every mould is unique,” Claire explains. “For the hearing aid to work it has to have a good fit, which is why it has to be custom made.
“Around 550 moulds go out the door every day and we try to turn around paediatric moulds the same day.”
The 25 staff at the laboratory work across a number of stages of development, with 90% of the work they do for the NHS and the remaining 10% for high street dispensers.
You immediately get the feeling that the dedicated and long-standing staff here are not just workers coming in every day to do their job; they’re more than that. They are part of what makes Mary Hare a success.
“All the people who work here mix well with the children at the school,” adds Louise Gore, business manager at Mary Hare. “You see them outside playing football at lunchtime. Being able to see the children gives them all the focus to do their jobs well. It makes it so much more worthwhile.”
The first room we visit is where they cast the impression sent from the hospital. They are made of silicon or acrylic, with the former usually used for more moderate hearing loss and for more paediatric aids.
The labs support the Better Hearing Initiative, which aims to encourage children to be proud of wearing their hearing aids. Silicon aids can now be customised with characters and glitter to help children enjoy wearing them too.
Here is where the raw form mould is shaped and grinded by hand into the exact shape. There are usually seven shapers working in the room and all the work is bespoke and completed by hand.
Acrylic moulds are then polished after shaping for comfort and fit.
The third stop is the drilling room, which is far quieter and less scary than its name implies.
A sound board tube is fitted in a drilled canal within the mould. This will feed the tube that attaches directly to the hearing aid.
Every ear mould has its own unique identification number, which is also laser engraved on to the mould here, before it is quality checked and then sent upstairs to be dispatched.
It is here that we meet Cheong Yeap, who travels into work from London every day.
“I came here in the beginning to help a friend, who was the previous managing director,” he explains. “I was only supposed to be here for a short time, but just stayed.
“It is a very fulfilling job and the school dinners obviously help!”
For the past 24 months the laboratory has also been digitally printing moulds, which are made up of layers just 0.12mm thick. The impressions are scanned before the mould is designed electronically.
Claire says it allows them to offer choice to their customers.
“The benefits of 3D printing moulds is that they are very cost-effective,” she adds. “They can be reordered easily and it removes some of the cost pressure from the audiologists.
“We find that it is used mainly for the older generation, with mild hearing loss.”
Kane Dypka and Kate Louch are working in this room and have both been trained in the manual process too, which they say helps them better understand the intricacies of the work they are doing.
“Every mould is different so you are constantly learning here,” Kate explains.
“It is a cleaner, quieter place to work than the manual laboratory and you don’t risk cutting yourself,” Kane adds with a smile.
Next we’re taken upstairs to meet the office staff who check in hundreds of impressions and then send out hundreds more moulds daily.
They have processed 10,000 items in the past two weeks alone, which gives you some idea of the scale of what they do here, in this 19th century mansion, designed by the eminent architect, Norman Shaw.
They do also occasionally have returns coming back, but without the benefit of face to face contact with the patient that’s inevitable.
Working next door to the office is HARS – a hearing aid repair shop with a big difference.
Many other repair shops are specialists in one make or model of hearing aid, whereas HARS is different. It will fix any type of aid and that is what really sets it apart.
“A hearing aid is an investment and a lifeline for many people,” says Gary Bonner, interim admin and support manager. “HARS is a hidden gem. People come back year after year, sending their hearing aids in to us for an annual service.
“Brian [Dobson - hearing aid repair technician] and his team will go to the ends of the earth to fix the aid for people.
“We have customers from all over the country and even some parts of Europe. We even shipped one back to Australia yesterday.”
Brian adds: “There is nowhere else in the country set up like us. A lot of people find that, especially if their aid is over five years old, nobody is interested in repairing them, but we do.
“When we first started it was 100% dispenser work, but now it is about 40% private customers.
“The average cost of a repair is about £100, compared to thousands for a new aid. And people get very attached to their aid too. You get used to the sound and the fit.
“People like that we are just a repair shop; we won’t try to sell them anything.”
Having the shop onsite also proves incredibly useful when there are any problems with the children’s hearing aids too.
And it is not just hearing aids that are manufactured in Greenham. The company also offers a variety of hearing protection products too.
“The laboratory is not a huge business but it is a very important part of what we do,” Louise adds. “We are all very proud of everything we do here.”
Who was Mary Hare?
Mary Hare was born in November 1865 and established a Brighton-based uniformed women's police force as well as being an active suffragette.
She is best known, however, as the founder of an oral school for deaf children, which has now become the UK's largest non-maintained special school for the deaf.
Mary Hare's ethos was that deafness was not a mental disability but rather a sensory impairment that presents the deaf child with additional barriers to learning. At the time this was quite a unique approach.
Mary Hare School continues to fulfil Mary’s vision for the auditory/oral education of deaf children.
Mary died in 1945, two days after her 80th birthday. She wrote in her will that her “efforts on behalf of the Deaf have been my greatest joy in life”.