Women in the Spotlight: Huifang Pan — Finding Opportunity Through Printing
In this interview, Huifang Pan explains to Nick Coombes how she broke away from poverty to discover a career in printing. A lab technician, Pan describes how a career in STEM is not only intellectually stimulating but enables her to connect to Vetaphone's customers.
Tell us a little about your background
My parents were farmers that used traditional methods like planting crops by hand. As the eldest of four girls, I started working in a factory in Shenzhen [China] at an early age, and then spent time as a waitress in a hotel. My sisters needed money for their education, which made me work harder to get a higher paid job to ensure I could supply the money. It also pushed me hard to study English, which I taught myself. I also took evening classes in computers after working at the hotel during the daytime.
How did your career develop?
After working at the hotel for about a year, I had a job offer as an assistant at a Danish furniture company that had just opened a showroom in Dongguan. They were very kind and paid for English classes to improve my skills. Around the same time, a work colleague recommended that I read books on business and international trade. This proved very useful, because after I left the furniture company, I became a personal assistant to someone who had just established his own business trading steel with Denmark. During that time, I learned a lot about steel plate standards, machinery, and production, but I must say that’s not very much use these days!
Is this what brought you to live in Denmark?
I came to Denmark because my boss and his wife decided to move back to Denmark. They knew my educational background and my family and knew that I needed more skills for my future career, so they invited me to come to Denmark and see if I could get a higher qualification for better job opportunities than I had had so far. So, I arrived in Kolding and knocked on the door of IBA (a business academy) and was offered the chance to study international marketing and business.
How did you come into contact with Vetaphone?
It was just before I started my bachelor's degree at the IBA that one of my classmates called me and asked if I’d be interested in a job interview. At the time, I was working part time job selling sausages from a van! I knew it would be a great opportunity to start a proper job with a Danish company before I finished my education, and it so happened that my classmate was doing a project on Vetaphone, and knew they were looking for someone to help in the Asian markets — so she thought of me.
What happened next?
I got in touch with Vetaphone to arrange the meeting and told them that I was about to start my top-up Degree studies, so I could only work part time. I was excited but nervous and said that I knew the company was famous for its phone business - oh dear! They kindly explained to me that Vetaphone had nothing to do with phones, and that it’s the world leader in corona and plasma surface treatment technology, which of course meant nothing to me at that time. I’ve since found out that I’m not the only one to assume the company is involved in telephones! But the outcome was that I was invited to a meeting with Jan Eisby, one the sons of the founder, and that began my journey with Vetaphone, initially as a student helping with material testing, and sales support for the Asian market.
What are you doing at Vetaphone now?
My job now, as senior lab technician, revolves around the testing of plastic film and foil materials and substrates for their adhesive abilities with the liquid inks and lacquers that are applied. Basically, what we do is called ‘proof of concept’. Essentially, we find out if the substrate does what it needs to do in a commercial environment. Our unique test lab facility in Kolding allows us to verify the desired dyne value for each material in terms of its requirements. We measure the surface tension with a dyne pen or the contact angle, and sometimes the peel strength, depending on what’s needed. When it comes to corona testing, it is more about ensuring we offer the right corona power solution and support our customers with their corona treatment process. The customer sends us his/her materials and we corona treat them in our Test Lab and measure each power dosage. Then, we send them a detailed report of the test results so they can find the optimal corona treatment for their production lines.
Why is it important for customers to test materials?
As far as most converters are concerned, PE is PE, and PP is PP, and that’s that — until something goes wrong in their process, and they blame the corona treater! One of the first things you learn from testing materials is that no two rolls of film are identical. We often end up showing them that the same material from different suppliers needs a different power density to reach the dyne level needed for the next process. All materials react differently — even when they are supposed to be the same, so we can only offer the right solution if we get to test the materials.
What kind of tests do you perform in the lab?
There are basically two types: sheet tests and roll tests. With sheet tests, we use smaller batches of material that allows us to provide our customers with quick answers. We have been doing this for many years and it has helped us to gain valuable knowledge on different substrates.
With roll to roll, we test a full roll of the material with several different recipes that can be further tested on the customer’s own production equipment. This is a recent addition to our test lab capability, and because we can run both corona and plasma tests, it allows us to become a much closer working partner with our customers. I must say that this is still a new process to me, but more and more customers are interested in testing entire rolls, and join us in the lab to watch the tests take place. This is really exciting because I get to learn new ways of using the test equipment.
Is material testing different when it comes to using plasma?
Yes, it is. When we carry out plasma testing as proof of concept, the customer sends us materials and we create what we call ‘the material curve’, which we send back to the customer with different recipes. They evaluate the treated samples and find which recipe works the best in their process. Because of its complexity and additional cost, we work much closer with our customer's R&D department on plasma coating and testing. It’s a very precise tool and is highly ‘tuneable’ to achieve the desired result. As with corona, we are world leaders in plasma treatment and testing.
What is most fascinating part of your job?
Getting a result! I feel most fulfilled when the tests we carry out help our customers. The testing process itself must be methodical and accurate with no margin for error, so it requires a lot of concentration, which can be very tiring. But it's interesting to find out why and how the work I do provides the customers with the answers they need and why a particular substrate troubles the customer or needs high corona power. It’s a bit like a doctor investigating the root cause of what is making a patient sick – it’s a process of elimination.
Why do you like working at Vetaphone?
I feel very much part of the family here. You must remember, I’m a long way from home and living and working in a very different culture and environment to the one I knew when I was growing up. I love the way we work as a team — it gives me a sense of pride in what I do, and a feeling of belonging, which is very comforting. We all help each other and have the same goal — happy customers!
Nick Coombes is a 45-year veteran of the printing industry, and independent marketing adviser to a number of leading technology suppliers to the international graphic arts market. He is also an editorial consultant to many of the leading international print media owners and a regular contributor to a range of B2B titles.