When Chinese plates first started being sold in Europe a decade or so ago, many printers were too scared to take the plunge. Despite offering significant cost savings over plates sold by established global manufacturers, there were numerous horror stories about how the plates performed on press.
Dan Miller, digital manager at Edwardthompson, in Sunderland, was familiar with the stories. So when he attended a UK trade show in 2018 and found himself chatting to representatives of Lucky HuaGuang Graphics on their stand, he wasn’t seriously considering switching to them because the printer was a long-time user of Agfa plates.
However, later that year, the printer started using a new plate line and that’s when the problems began. “Agfa came in to recalibrate the new plate line,” says Miller.
“Historically, we had always had a problem because we use UV inks and we were only getting 80,000 impressions on the Agfa plates. So we thought that while they were in it would be a good time to work with Agfa, get it all recalibrated and up to spec, and get that number of impressions up. But we had a lot of problems and they didn’t solve the problems. In fact, it ended up a lot worse, so in the end we kind of fell out over it.”
This falling out coincided with a serendipitous phone call from a representative at Lucky HuaGuang. “They contacted me – purely based on that visit to their stand at the trade show – at the right time,” says Miller. “I explained the difficulty we were having and three of them flew over from Germany within a week with their plate specialist and some sample plates. It was the first time I’ve ever had a company come in like that as a team rather than just sending individuals.”
He explains that they reconfigured the company’s Screen PT-R4300 plate setter for Lucky HuaGang’s TP-U thermal CTP plate and guaranteed Miller he would experience a run that he’d never experienced before. “And we did,” he says. “We have never ever had a run like that off one set of plates.”
Because of what had occurred with Agfa, Miller says he was about to start shopping around for alternatives anyhow and would probably have taken a look at what Fuji had to offer “but they [Lucky HuaGuang] flew over, took the headache away and saved me a lot of legwork. They were so confident in their product, they were happy to fly to the UK to show me what they could do and so I gave them the chance. The proof is in the pudding and what they said would happen happened”.
Despite being wooed by the performance of the company’s plates, he admits he still had reservations about committing to a long-term relationship with the plate provider.
“We’ve all heard the horror stories,” says Miller. “They show up with one type of plate, it performs phenomenally on the day, so you place your first order and the plates are a little different when they arrive. However, I can honestly say we’ve never had any of those problems.”
Indeed, the only problem the company has had with the plates to date was due to operator error. “When we alerted them to the problem, they flew a technician over within a day and it turned out that our operator was doing something wrong,” says Miller. “They’re happy to help you with any situation, which is great given they’re a Chinese company based in Germany. I was a bit worried at first about them being based in Germany, but they’ve been really good and I can’t fault them.”
The high levels of service Edwardthompson has enjoyed from Lucky HuaGuang doesn’t just relate to rapid response to any technical issues. “They monitor our usage, which we do anyway, but they do it from their end. So usually when we feel it’s about time for us to place an order, they’ve already phoned or emailed to say ‘you’ve used x amount, which is your average use, so are you ready for another order?’”
Lucky HuaGuang also keeps additional supplies of certain stock in Germany, so if Edwardthompson ever needs a larger order than usual, these can be readily supplied. “If for some reason work picks up and we need more plates, they can do that,” says Miller. “That was my biggest worry because I didn’t want to get stuck being short of a plate.”
Lucky HuaGuang has also helped facilitate a reciprocal arrangement with another local printer to give Edwardthompson some disaster recovery cover were it ever needed. “Our Sanden Quantum web press is the main press the plates are used on and the only other [Sanden Quantum] press in the UK is owned by the Paragon Group in Sunderland, which ironically is a five-minute journey away,” explains Miller. “We cover each other for plates and Lucky HuaGuang were kind enough to go over to Paragon and calibrate their line as well, so if they ever have any problems and they want plates from us, we could just give them a set of plates.”
While this high level of service has impressed Miller, what’s been more impressive is the significant savings that switching to the new plates have allowed the company to enjoy. He estimates this could equate to £9,000-£9,750 per year in terms of plate and chemical costs.
“We are saving at least 30% on the plate, which is significant,” says Miller. “But to be honest, that’s a secondary thing because we weren’t really interested in the price. We were more interested in how can we reduce our plate changeovers.”
He adds that the most impressions the company managed to get from an Agfa plate was around 110,000, but the Lucky HuaGuang plates have far exceeded this total. “Our highest number of impressions so far off one set of plates – and that’s purely because of the length of the run, which was our maximum quantity – was 273,000 impressions, which is nearly three times more than Agfa. It could have been even more, but that was the longest print run we’ve ever had.
“Normally, if we had got that job out, it would have required three plate changes and on our eight station web press it takes about 15 to 20 minutes to changeover. So even if the plates were costing us more, we would save on that additional cost because of the time saving, but we’re lucky to save on both fronts.”
Ironically, Lucky HuaGuang struck a deal with Agfa in August 2018 that sees the latter initially producing Lucky’s plates for the Chinese market before expanding the agreement globally – a strong seal of approval for the company’s product offer from one of the leading global plate makers.
But when you consider the glowing terms in which Miller speaks about the Chinese company, it hardly comes as a surprise to hear Agfa was keen to enter into such a partnership.
“I can’t recommend them enough and I’m more than happy to speak to any company or any printers about them,” he says. “I’ve already been speaking to Paragon about them and I’ve forwarded their details to other printers in the area and helped them get in the door – the rest is then up to them [Lucky]. The trouble they’re having at the moment is people are sceptical and worried about the supply, but I think next year Agfa is due to start supplying their plates to the UK and, once that starts to happen, they will start to grow.”
The TP-U is a thermal plate developed by Lucky HuaGuang Graphics. The company says the plate is not only suitable for UV ink, but also for printing with conventional inks. It is compatible with all the leading platesetters and processors in the market.
Plate type Positive thermal plate
Wave length 830nm
Resolution 1%-99% at 200lpi
Run length 50,000 impressions with UV ink; 300,000 impressions with ordinary ink; 500,000 impressions with baking
Price On application
Contact HuaGuang Germany +49 (0) 2154 95331 18 hgfilm.de
Sunderland-based Edwardthompson was founded more than 150 years ago. Traditionally, the company was heavily reliant on the bingo market, selling supplies to bingo halls such as colour printed bingo tickets, and novelty bingo dabbers and markers. In more recent years, it diversified into the direct mail market and also started producing posters, brochures and POS for bingo hall operators. Unfortunately, in 2016, the company was forced to cut its workforce following a decline in the bingo market and a sharp drop in charity direct mailings. The company is hoping to rehire some of the people it made redundant as it rebuilds its turnover base. It currently employs 65 members of staff.
Why was it bought...
The company wasn’t getting as many impressions as it desired off the Agfa plates it was using. After switching to a new plate line the situation got even worse, so it decided to take a chance on plates made by Chinese company Lucky HuaGuang.
How it has performed...
Dan Miller has been blown away by the new plates, which have allowed the business to enjoy major cost and time savings. “I’ve worked for the company for 10 years and we’ve never had runs like that off Agfa plates,” says Miller. “I can’t champion them enough.”