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Ten-year plate deal between News International and Agfa -news commentary by Andy McCourt

Thursday, 06 April 2006
By Print21

“News International is buying imaged plates from Agfa,” is the way NI’s managing director, operations, Ian McDonald put it.

The 10-year agreement, valued at almost $200 million, shrink-wraps equipment, 24/7 staffing and support, software, and maintenance into a plate supply contract that effectively locks out any other supplier for a decade. From September this year, Agfa will begin deploying its own staff – twenty-five technicians plus a Belgium based ‘flying squad’ for emergencies – into NI’s UK print sites that produce the Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World. Twenty Polaris XCV-S violet photopolymer CtP systems will eventually be installed, running at an industry-best 220 plates per hour. They will feed NI’s sixteen new MAN Roland triple-width newspaper presses, and interface completely with MAN’s PeCOM workflow, via Agfa’s Arkitex newspaper enterprise software.

Agfa will supply the plates and assume full staffing responsibility for operation of the equipment. This reduces NI’s wage bill and puts the onus onto Agfa to sort out any prepress problems.

The sheer volume of plates required to produce 30 million newspapers and 19 million magazines per week, called for the fastest CtP available, at premium colour quality and with the ability to support the UK’s busiest newspaper sites 24/7. NI chose Agfa and included Ian McDonald in its IPEX presentation to the world media.

Agfa Graphics’ (soon to be a separate company), president Stefaan Vanhooren says of the deal; “ It shows how our applications knowledge, total solutions approach, innovative digital technology and service combine to deliver a revolutionary value proposition that no other vendor can offer.”

NI’s McDonald says; “We were looking to buy more than technology. What we wanted was failsafe operations from file intake to the printing press. Agfa Graphics understood our needs and came up with a value proposition that more than meets our production requirements for the next ten years. We are very optimistic about the partnership.”

Asked if the UK facilities management model would be deployed in other markets such as NI’s huge Australian operation, McDonald indicated it would be up to the regional directors.

My call

Agfa’s News International coup could change the way technology is supplied to major printers forever. It’s a true partnership – like symbiosis. News gets rid of the headache of running four big prepress platemaking departments; and Agfa locks away the entire business for a decade. There are probably opt-out clauses if Agfa fails to deliver but they’re hardly likely to put $200 million of business in jeopardy.

Facilities management is common with digital transactional printing with HP, Xerox, Canon and IBM all engaging in it with their own staff onsite. However, it’s new for core offset plate supply and could spread like wildfire to other sectors – even presses – allowing publishers to concentrate on their main game: content.

It changes workplaces too. It’s hard to unionise a ‘moving target’ workforce – something that Rupert Murdoch would be well aware of after his famous run-ins at Wapping in the 80s. With a Greenfield site at Broxbourne underway and an exit from Wapping planned, he would be thinking of this aspect for sure.

There are risks of course. The fortunes of manufacturing companies rise and fall – imagine being an MG car owner with no service, spares or support since its collapse last year. Whilst Agfa Graphics is looking stronger than ever, ten years is a long time in this business. Human resource management must also be an issue – the Agfa staff report to Agfa, the News staff to News. But the benefits must outweigh the risks for a deal of this magnitude to get through.

Amidst the digital utopia of IPEX – and it really is the definitive digital show in every regard – I pick Agfa’s deal with News as the most significant. Not because of the technology, this is undoubtedly excellent, but because of the methodology.

A new trend in graphic arts supply has been established.

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