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Operational Efficiency

Lean and digital transformation making a huge difference at Stockport die-maker Arden Dies

Arden Dies has boosted productivity through a range of simple yet effective continuous improvement projects, while also finding success with cutting-edge digital technologies.


Founded in 1964, Arden Dies is a market-leading producer of dies and tools for the packaging industry, such as cutters and stamps for cardboard cartons and boxes.

Simple projects, big impact

Having joined the Growth Hub’s Made for Manufacturing programme in 2020, senior managers in the business have taken a forward-thinking, lean approach to improving productivity.

One of those taking part alongside a group of other manufacturing leaders was Julian Homer, Production Manager in Arden Dies’ engraving division.

“Having been at the same company for 21 years, I suddenly found myself in a virtual room with 15 people from entirely different manufacturing backgrounds,” he says. “We were all looking for new systems and ways to implement continuous improvement, so we were able to bounce ideas off each other in a way I hadn’t experienced before.”

Reducing the ‘8 wastes’ of lean in the production process was a big focus. ‘Waste boards’ were installed in the workshop, including a ‘good ideas box’ for staff to make suggestions on how processes could be improved.

Some projects were inspired by methods other manufacturers on Julian’s cohort were using, such ‘shadow boards’ – a way of organising tools so operators can quickly identify what they need.

“Someone sent a photo of a shadow board on the WhatsApp group for our cohort, and it was so simple I thought, why aren’t we doing this?” Julian explains. “We didn’t have any shadow boards before Made for Manufacturing, and now I’m addicted to them!”

“For example, I created shadow boards for the sandpaper blocks we use in the finishing department. Previously, a lot of time was wasted finding the right grade of sandpaper and the right size block. Now, the blocks and grades are clearly visible, and when the sandpaper gets worn operatives can simply rip it off and replace it with a pre-cut length that’s ready to go from the board. It’s just one small cog in the machine, but it’s all about marginal gains. Every minute saved adds up.”

From one can of worms to the next

In another example, Julian identified that the process for replacing broken tools in the CNC department was not fit for purpose.

“When a tool broke, operators were stopping the CNC machine and travelling several metres away to grind a new tool, which then needed to be checked before being put into the machine to start production again.

That process could waste 10-15 minutes at a time. We now have a new process in place to batch-grind tools in advance so that when a tool breaks, the operator can just pick a new one off the shelf.

“We’re now looking at how we can reduce tool breakages in the first place, so it’s still an ongoing project. It sometimes feels like opening a can of worms, which then leads to another can of worms, but that’s how continuous improvement works. It’s a never-ending process that’s already made a huge difference for us. We’ve now employed a Continuous Improvement Manager who is like a dog with a bone – he gets everyone around the table and makes sure there is accountability.”

As Julian’s colleague and Works Manager, Tony Lynch, puts it, Made for Manufacturing changed the way managers think: “I now step back from the day-to-day issues of the business to be able to look at the bigger picture. It has also given us a boost in confidence to be able to gauge our position against other businesses and realise that we are doing well.”

Arden Dies’ continuous improvement efforts were also supplemented by support from the Hub’s Mentoring for Growth programme. All three SMT leaders were matched with a qualified business mentor and coach from Be the Business, who supported them with challenges around productivity, business planning and workforce development.

Success through digital transformation

In addition to practical improvements in the workshop, Arden Dies has adopted cutting-edge digital technology. Through the Growth Hub’s recommendation, the business has made good use of the North West Made Smarter programme, including a digital transformation workshop, which identified business challenges and where digital tools could be implemented, as well as leadership and management training.

Made Smarter has also fully-funded the placement of two digital technology interns into the business, to help train and support their team through digital adoption.

The adoption of 3D printing technology has been particularly successful, with an in-house 3D printing department now able to produce some of the bespoke components that are more time-consuming to make by hand.

During the pandemic, a successful application through the Growth Hub for a COVID-19 Small Business Recovery Grant also enabled Arden Dies to purchase Augmented Reality (AR) glasses. These ‘digital glasses’ are equipped with a central camera, optical zoom, voice command and recording capabilities, allowing Arden Dies to support remote machine servicing and training with colleagues in Germany.

“Digital transformation for us is part of our wider continuous improvement efforts,” Julian says. “It’s about adding to our existing capabilities and supplementing the work we are doing to improve ourselves.”

A leaner, greener future

Going forward, Arden Dies is continuing to work on its digital and lean transformation through Made Smarter and the Hub’s Manufacturing Peer Network, as well as reduce its carbon footprint through the Hub’s Journey to Net Zero programme.

Julian concludes: “We have a really good vision of where we want to be; there is lots still to do.”



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