06 August 2014 Analogue Print

Masterwork stamps its impression as flagship for China

Masterwork's factory in Tianjin is as impressive a plant as exists, producing machines that match anything in the West.

The machines are lined up on a smooth, polished floor, a stand in front of each providing details of the machine and perhaps its customer.

The bare metal parts shine and there is a car showroom feel about the setting. But instead of toothpaste smelling salesmen, there are only assembly workers putting the final touches to the die cutters, foil blockers and strippers being produced by Masterwork. This is one of the most impressive factories of any printing equipment maker in the work and it is in Tianjin, a couple of hours along the motorway from Beijing.

Any thoughts of Chinese equipment being second rate or poor imitations of machines made in Switzerland are blown away. This factory employs 700, produces at least a machine a day, and can look any facility anywhere full in the eye. It is the cleanest of factories despite using Toshiba CNC lathes to cut and shape metal into the micron accuracy needed for precision equipment. In many plants such activity results in a combination of metal dust and oil coating pretty much anything. But not here.

It is a new factory, built specifically for Masterwork, and opened in 2009. Already there is another 60,000m2 building being erected alongside. This will be for folder gluers. Another plant is nearby. In the next year the approach to the factory with laid out gardens and fountains will be finished. Inside there is already a museum which makes the point firmly that the Chinese gave the world paper and printing.

A statue of Bi Sheng Holding a stick of moveable type four centuries before Gutenberg makes the point. The story continues to that of the business itself, how it began making small foilers for a Taiwanese company then designed its own, how it became a private company in 2007, floated on the stock exchange in 2011, and all the time pouring money into development its own foiling and cutting and stripping machines. Chairman and general manager and guiding this development is Mrs Li Li, unusual perhaps in the West, but not so in China.

On the walls are samples of tight register foiling and debossing on cigarette cartons, on collector cards, on drinks boxes and pharmaceutical cartons where braille is part of the pack. If the Chinese ever move to plain packaging for cigarettes Masterwork will have to do some nifty thinking, but as smoking is a major vice in the country, this is not very likely.

One customer has 115 of Masterwork’s machines and overall its machines process 95% of all cigarette cartons and sleeves sold in the country.

While a customer can buy a platen or a foiler, with choice between mechanical, pneumatic or optical registration, the unique aspect to the product line up is the Duo system, combining a foiler and die cutting platen in one device. The technology is also used to produce a twin headed foiler. The advantage is that there is no chance for humidity in the environment to affect the dimensions of the sheet if left between processes.

Blanking is also part of the system, so with automated logistics around the machines, each can run pretty well unsupervised once set up to go. These are not the fastest machines, running at 6,000cph, but as multiple operations are combined, there is a net time saving against separate machines which run twice as fast, let alone the cost advantage.

In all there are more than 30 different product combinations possible on the sheetfed machines. Masterwork also produces a flatbed die cutter and stamping unit for webfed production and has a line up of folder gluers, which it has only recently begun to export. There are also inspection machines which will spot any blemish in colour, in embossing or cutting, at very high speed. One of these featured on its stand at Ipex this year.

And because these are made in China there is a cost benefit against machines produced in Europe without any loss of quality. Export manager Shen makes the point that everything is produced in China, from the smallest screws up delivering a cumulative advantage which is part of the initial appeal of the machines. However, there is more than price leading to companies buying the machines on spec and to sites where there are multiple installations.

Leading French cosmetics carton printer Autojon runs seven Masterwork machines; and other company in Paris ordered one purely on its reputation and there are machines across Europe, including just one at a printer in Stuttgart. In the UK has five of the company’s foiling machines.

Sales growth has been phenomenal, 70% in 2012 and were expected to be similar for 2013. Sales have reached $850 million, making this is the leading Chinese print machinery producer and one that is making machines that stand with the best that Europe, Japan or the US can muster.

The company has opened a North American showroom in Charlotte, close to the US tobacco lands, and has a European showroom in Wakefield, which carries £250,000 of spares and where the business is headed by Ken Farnworth. “We have sold a machine to Beamglow which is typical of the high end customers we work with. We are seeing people bring work back in house rather than go to trade finishing and see the advantages of having two production steps combined in one machine.”

There are already plans to add inkjet units to the cutter-foiling machines, demonstrated at Chinaprint in 2013, to print bar code or other limited variable data. There are fast make ready systems and the technology is a match for anything produced anywhere else in the world. “We are at the forefront with the factory and the level of expertise in the business. We are ahead in thinking about robotics. Within the next five or six years everybody in Europe will have Masterwork equipment,” says Li Jun, vice general manager at Masterwork Machinery

The deal to supply Heidelberg with Masterwork machines makes that prediction a lot more likely.


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Masterwork

Masterwork

Mrs Li Li is chairman and general manager of Masterwork Machinery.


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Masterwork delivers Heidelberg platen

Story 1 of 11

Masterwork

Masterwork

The factory at Tianjin produces at least a machine a day. It is a new factory, built specifically for Masterwork, and opened in 2009.

Already there is another 60,000m2 building being erected alongside. This will be for folder gluers. Another plant is nearby. In the next year the approach to the factory with laid out gardens and fountains will be finished.

Inside there is already a museum which makes the point firmly that the Chinese gave the world paper and printing.

Story 2 of 11