Unlocking the Holy Grail: the key to mass customization at mass-production prices

Mass-personalized or -customized products at near mass-production prices is a huge potential area for growth for digital print. Only with digital can you print in real time onto anything and everything, such as 3D objects, clothing, flooring, tiles and wallcoverings, to give a unique customized product.

In this post, Martin Bailey, former CTO and now consultant at Global Graphics Software, explores the rise of the use of variable data and how digital inkjet is the key to unlocking the Holy Grail for many retailers: mass customization at near mass-production prices.


It’s common to think of variable data printing, where at least some of every instance is different from every other instance, as being the preserve of transactional and direct mail printing. Admittedly, that’s where much of it started, but in the broadest sense of the term, variable data printing is now used far more widely, across multiple industries. In situations where the delivery of the product is through a push model (where there is no direct connection between each item produced and a specific recipient at the time of production) several cases are common. Most of these cases are in B2B environments, where the buyer then sells or delivers the result, often B2C.

In mainstream commercial print, labels, packaging and industrial manufacturing, it’s difficult to imagine an alternative to the push model, even given the huge amount of metadata that some companies, such as luxury goods brands and supermarkets, are collecting on their customers.

But there are many situations where there’s a much closer relationship between an end user of the product and the organization that printed or manufactured it, which can be described as a pull model instead. Many of these cases move beyond the traditional idea of variable data as being text and barcodes imaged on top of a static background to each piece being truly unique. They deserve to be described as mass customization, and all of them have been enabled by web-to-print or other forms of online ordering.

The wide format market has long provided display and soft signage, sportswear, tee shirts and car wraps to custom designs on very short runs, down to a single copy. Both signage and sportswear are aimed at both B2B and B2C markets.

Photofinishing has long been a B2C business and has used digital printing for decades. The industry has learned that simply producing 5” x 7” prints does not generate significant profits, but has grown first into photobooks, and then into many other forms of product decoration, printing photographs on hats, shoes, apparel, bed linen, mugs etc and converging with what have historically been wide format opportunities. Each individual order, perhaps for one mug with a photo printed on it, may not appear to be variable data printing. But when orders are aggregated at the producer there may be hundreds or thousands of mugs to be printed per day, each with a different image.

Photobooks offer higher margins than simple print finishing
Photobooks offer higher margins than simple print finishing.

The same business model is applied more broadly to print designs which may be uploaded by the customer and/or created in a web portal by combining the customer’s text and graphics from a library. Examples include phone cases, tee shirts, postcards and greetings cards.

And a number of providers effectively act as publishers for customer designs, managing printing and fulfilment for a variety of products or lengths of custom-printed textile. Examples include Red Bubble and Spoonflower.

Several brands have run campaigns whereby products can be ordered with a name on them, usually for gifting. Examples include “My Nutella” and “My Marmite”. A variant of this is where only a label is purchased, often for bottles of spirits, to be applied to the product by the purchaser themselves.

The most famous campaign for ‘personalized’ labels was Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke”, but in practice most labels were printed in long runs, randomizing the most common names in each country; only labels from roadshows and purchases from the web were actually printed on demand for specific recipients. This makes it an excellent example of a hybrid model taking advantage of the benefits of multiple print technologies.

Personalized Marmite jars - personalized product for gifting can attract a significant premium
Personalized product for gifting can attract a significant premium.1

Even in industries producing a design that would historically have been created in multiple mile or kilometer lengths, such as wallcoverings, there are opportunities for increased margins in custom delivery. As an example, consider a decorating company that has been contracted to apply wallcoverings to a large office. If a wallcovering vendor could deliver pre-cut drops of the wallcovering, each of exactly the right length, and with the pattern starting in exactly the right place so that each drop aligns with those on either side, that would save the decorating company a lot of time. And that, in turn, would allow the vendor to charge a sufficient premium to more than cover the reduced total length required because there is no longer any wastage from the decorators cutting each drop to ensure alignment.

A lot of the demand for this mass customization is ascribed to the changing attitudes and communication preferences of millennials and Gen-Z. To generalize, it’s often said that such audiences demand to be treated, and be able to represent themselves as unique, requiring them to be able to obtain unique product in support of that position.

But the demand is not specific to any age group, according to “The Deloitte Consumer Review – Made-to-order: The rise of mass personalization”, based on survey results from YouGov, which also went on to say: “1 in 5 consumers who expressed an interest in personalized products or services are willing to pay a 20% premium”; that figure rises to around 1 in 2 for customized clothing, furniture, homeware and DIY.

Demand for customized product is not restricted to any particular age group.
Demand for customized product is not restricted to any particular age group.

Of course, personalized and customized products are not warehoused at all; they’ve been created for a specific recipient and will usually be shipped immediately.

Inkjet can achieve unique results

Taking short runs to the extreme, a significant advantage for inkjet that applies across the majority of industries is that it does not need to simply reproduce the same invariant design repeatedly, even for a short run; instead, it can make every item different.

Inkjet can achieve unique results in a variety of different industries and being unique in a useful way is a very effective lever for premium pricing and increased profitability.

 

This is an excerpt from the white paper: Software considerations for inkjet in the smart factory


DOWNLOAD YOUR COPY OF THE WHITE PAPER

White paper: Software considerations for inkjet in the smart factory

Further reading:

What you need to build a press that must handle variable data jobs at high speed

Watch the video: Connecting print to a Smart Factory:

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1https://www.marmite.co.uk/products/shop/marmite-personalised-classic-jar.html

Keeping up to date – how the car analogy may no longer be relevant in the printing world

In his latest blog post, Martin Bailey, consultant at Global Graphics Software, takes a look at some of the reasons why his go-to car analogy to help his audience understand the world of print may no longer be as relevant as it once was:

Over the years I’ve used analogies in many of my blog posts, conference presentations and white papers; they’re a very effective way of sharing a high-level understanding of sometimes complex ideas. I’m not a car fanatic, so I’ve not had any specific motivation to compare print technologies to anything around cars, but for some reason it seems that car analogies have consistently just worked, so I’ve used them.

But I realized recently that I’m going to have to rework some of them in response to the growth of electric vehicles replacing internal combustion. I know that growth is very uneven across the world (wow, go Norway!), but it’s clearly the future of motoring for many of us. Much of what I write and report might be summarized as “this is the future and how we’ll get there”, so building on something that will become more and more outdated for many readers and listeners introduces an unwelcome distraction from the analogy. It also makes it less effective because analogies must be based on a common understanding or experience, otherwise they just don’t work.

On the other hand, internal combustion vehicles are not even close to the point yet where all readers and listeners will regard them as dinosaurs of historical interest only. So I can’t sensibly use them as a representation of what we were all doing in the past.

So, I thought I’d look through some of the car-based analogies I’ve used to see which need updating, and which are fine as they are:

I’ve often compared a digital press and its associated digital front end (DFE) to the components of a car:

  • The supplied job file, probably in PDF, is the fuel
  • The steering wheel and dashboard are the DFE control systems and user interface
  • The engine is the RIP (clearly the most important part of the entire system, but then I may be biased!)
  • The gearbox and transmission are the electronics and drivers, like those from our friends at Meteor inkjet
  • The wheels are the inkjet heads, actually putting the rubber/ink on the road/substrate

Well, some of those parts still make sense, but I’m not sure that I can equate submitting a PDF file to charging a battery. Somehow the motors in an electric vehicle never seem to have the prominence that I’d personally give to a RIP. And the motors are often linked direct to the wheels, with less of the gearbox and transmission infrastructure than you’d use for internal combustion. This one needs some serious fixing.

Next up is a statement that we used, for example, in Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press: that making a PDF file constructed for efficiency is like using better fuel in a car. There can be a clear step-up from regular to super for gasoline/petrol, but electricity is electricity, at least once it’s in the car battery.

I guess you could argue that charging points with different power capabilities, from 7kW up to 350kW, will significantly affect how long it will take to recharge the car, and therefore on how far you can get in a day, but it’s not really the same discussion. That’s another analogy that I’m going to have to work on.

And finally, for now, I’ve described companies who build digital presses without thinking about software to process job files and proper user interfaces as being like people thinking they can sell rolling chassis: cars with no bodywork, no seats and not even a cup-holder. You may get a few sales for that in specialist markets, but it’s not exactly a mass market.

Of the three analogies I’ve listed here, I think this is the only one that might survive unscathed, although it probably has less value without being able to equate the other bits of the car to digital press and DFE components.

As I said to start with, I had no reason to pick cars as the base for analogies that I use other than that they seemed to work well. I have a feeling that may not be as true in the future. I guess there did have to be one advantage to big oil!

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey, consultant at Global Graphics Software, is a former CTO of the company and currently the primary UK expert to the ISO committees maintaining and developing PDF and PDF/VT. He is the author of Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, a guide offering advice to anyone with a stake in variable data printing including graphic designers, print buyers, composition developers and users.

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Introducing SmartDFE to INKISH TV at Fespa 2022

At the recent Fespa show in Berlin, Justin Bailey, managing director at Global Graphics Software, spoke to Morten Reitoft of INKISH TV about the technologies offered for inkjet by Hybrid Software Group and why the SmartDFE™ is a key component if you’re planning to integrate print into your smart factory. 

Find out more:

  1. Global Graphics Smart QI: New Platform for On-the-Fly Inspection
  2. Connecting print to a smart factory.
  3. How to transform your inkjet business with Industry 4.0 and OPC UA
  4. Short introduction to the OPC UA

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A nostalgic look back at the ISO PDF/X standard

In this blog post, Martin Bailey recalls his days as the first chair of the ISO PDF/X task force and how the standard has developed over the last 20 years.

Over the last few years there has been quite an outpouring of nostalgia around PDF. That was first for PDF itself, but at the end of 2021 we reached two decades since the first publication of an ISO PDF/X standard.

I’d been involved with PDF/X in its original home of CGATS (the Committee for Graphic Arts Technical Standards, the body accredited by ANSI to develop US national standards for printing) for several years before it moved to ISO. And then I became the first chair of the PDF/X task force in ISO. So I thought I’d add a few words to the pile, and those have now been published on the PDF Association’s web site at https://www.pdfa.org/the-route-to-pdf-x-and-where-we-are-now-a-personal-history/.

I realised while I was writing it that it really was a personal history for me. PDF/X was one of the first standards that I was involved in developing, back when the very idea of software standards was quite novel. Since then, supported and encouraged by Harlequin and Global Graphics Software, I’ve also worked on standards and chaired committees in CIP3, CIP4, Ecma, the Ghent Working Group, ISO and the PDF Association (I apologise if I’ve missed any off that list!).

It would be easy to assume that working on all of those standards meant that I knew a lot about what we were standardising from day one. But the reality is that I’ve learned a huge amount of what I know about print from being involved, and from talking to a lot of people.

Perhaps the most important lesson was that you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) only take into account your own use cases while writing a standard. Most of the time a standard that satisfies only a single company should just be proprietary working practice instead. It’s only valuable as a standard if it enables technologies, products and workflows in many different companies.

That sounds as if it should be obvious, but the second major lesson was something that has been very useful in environments outside of standards as well. An awful lot of people assume that everyone cares a lot about the things that they care about, and that everything else is unimportant. As an example, next time you’re at a trade show (assuming they ever come back in their historical form) take a look and see how many vendors claim to have product for “the whole workflow”. Trust me, for production printing, nobody has product for the whole workflow. Each one just means that they have product for the bits of the workflow that they think are important. The trouble is that you can’t actually print stuff effectively and profitably if all you have is those ‘important’ bits. To write a good standard you have to take off the blinkers and see beyond what your own products and workflows are doing. And in doing that I’ve found that it also teaches you more about what your own ‘important’ parts of the workflow need to do.

Along the way I’ve also met some wonderful people and made some good friends. Our conversations may have a tendency to dip in and out of print geek topics, but sometimes those are best covered over a beer or two!

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey is currently the primary UK expert to the ISO committees maintaining and developing PDF and PDF/VT and is the author of Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, a new guide offering advice to anyone with a stake in variable data printing including graphic designers, print buyers, composition developers and users.

Further reading

  1. Compliance, compatibility, and why some tools are more forgiving of bad PDFs
  2. What the difference between PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-4

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Introducing SmartQI – the quality inspection system for high-speed digital printing

This month WhatTheyThink’s third Technology Outlook takes place. It’s a series of webinars and interviews that highlight new innovations from industry analysts and thought leaders.

As part of the Thought Leadership Video series, David Zwang of WhatTheyThink chatted to Mako™ product manager David Stevenson, about how, by using our vast experience in RIPs and rendering, we’ve created a high-performance framework for print inspection systems.

David introduces Smart QI™, a quality inspection system available with SmartDFE™. Designed especially for print, SmartQI is a camera-based, real-time quality inspection system, offering the same real-time streaming of rasters. It is especially useful as the use of variable data increases, and press speeds and resolutions continue to grow, making it essential to inspect the print for defects before it comes off the press and goes into finishing and converting.

Watch it here:

Find out more:

  1. Global Graphics Smart QI: New Platform for On-the-Fly Inspection
  2. Connecting print to a smart factory.
  3. Project manager Jason Hook shows how we’ve implemented OPC UA into our solutions in this film: How to transform your inkjet business with Industry 4.0 and OPC UA. Jason demonstrates how we track performance metrics like pressure levels across an entire production line using our PC and Ink Delivery System, all while uploading it securely onto cloud servers using AWS IoT SiteWise and Azure IoT.
  4. Short introduction to the OPC UA

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How to integrate print into the Smart Factory at the Industrial Print Integration conference

It’s my first time at the Industrial Print Integration Conference; I’ve packed my suitcase and my passport is raring to go, glad to be out of the drawer after two years of hibernation. I’m looking forward to meeting new people in the industry and learning about the new developments in technology.

If you’re interested in integrating print into your smart factory, join me for my talk at 12.30pm on Wednesday, 18 May 2022. I’ll be explaining how you integrate inkjet into the Smart Factory with the help of fully automated software that connects to the rest of the production system via Industry 4.0 technologies like OPC UA, the open standard for exchanging information for industrial communication. I’ll also explain how you can build in capability so you can deliver everything from mass production to mass customization at the same cost as current print systems.

And if you want to know more, then come along to our booth A7. We’re going to be showing a demo of our SmartDFE™, which I think is pretty impressive. You can watch a snippet here:

SmartDFE is our smart software that drives an inkjet printing subsystem in a factory setting, including those printers used for ultra-high speeds and 300m per minute production rates! The demo shows what happens when you combine high-tech SCADA systems (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) with OPC UA to monitor and control virtual print subsystems via iPads. You can control them both inside and outside of your plant location so management always knows what’s happening without ever having be physically present.

If you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time: https://ipi-conference.com/register/delegate

I hope to see you there!

About the author

Ian Bolton

Ian Bolton, Product Manager, Direct
Ian Bolton, Product Manager – SmartDFE™ and Direct™

Ian Bolton is the product manager for SmartDFE™ and Direct™. He works with printer OEMs to break down barriers that might be preventing them from reaching their digital printer’s full potential. A software engineer at heart, Ian has a masters in Advanced Computer Science from the University of Manchester, and over 15 years’ experience developing software for both start-ups and large corporations, such as Arm and Sony Ericsson. He draws on this technical background and his passion for problem-solving to define and drive features and requirements for innovative software solutions for digital print.

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From print to manufacturing – an introduction to industry terms in the smart factory for the printer operator

As print evolves to become more integrated with manufacturing and a key part of the smart factory, those of us in the printing world are discovering new industry terms and language. In this blog post, Ian Bolton, product manager at Global Graphics Software, defines some of those industry terms and includes examples of how they are implemented into Global Graphics Software’s solutions.

OPC UA
OPC stands for Open Platform Communications – UA stands for Unified Architecture. Together: OPC UA. It’s an open standard for exchanging information between industrial components (composers). First developed in 1994 as OPC, sometimes referred to as OPC Classic, the standard was redesigned in 2006 as OPC UA. It is used to communicate with the factory across the internet. It has full encryption and security standards built in.

OPC UA is supported by over 800 members in the OPC Foundation and has been deployed in over 50 million devices. It is supported by companies like Mitsubishi, Siemens, Rockwell Automation, Microsoft, Amazon, SAP and Cisco.

OPC UA Server and OPC UA Client
Two more industry terms are OPC UA Server and OPC UA Client. The OPC UA Client communicates data through the OPC UA Server. The Client communicates in both directions with the printer PLCs, both reading and writing, and it can display device-specific information, like the ink levels and inkjet head temperatures

The image below shows Global Graphics Software’s Smart Print Controller™ (SPC). The SPC is an operator user interface that connects to one or more of our Harlequin Direct™ RIPs. The SPC contains both an OPC UA Client and an OPC UA Server.

The OPC UA Server within the SPC allows the printer to appear as a single device to the Smart Factory OPC Clients. It can publish data to the smart factory and the outside world including industrial cloud services, like AWS IoT SiteWise and Microsoft’s Azure IoT platform (more about those in the next paragraph).

Industrial Cloud Services
Industrial cloud services, like AWS IoT SiteWise and Azure IoT, offer a range of industry-specific cloud solutions, including sharing and storing data. By sharing and storing data in the Cloud, you can leverage opportunities to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze the data. This allows you to do predictive maintenance and optimize your industrial components based on the data in the analysis. No programming is required to make this connection because the work is done via a web browser, although some firewall and networking adjustments may need to be made.

You can visualize data collected in this way in graphs and charts via a web browser, like in this image below:

SCADA
Another industry term is SCADA, which stands for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. With SCADA, you can supervise, monitor and control industrial processes both locally and remotely. The dashboards created in the SCADA system can be viewed from a browser on any device.

Here we show an Ignition SCADA solution connected to our OPC UA servers, but there are many other vendors.

Smart Factory
The smart factory autonomously runs the entire production process. Smart factories self-optimize, self-adapt and learn from new conditions in real-time allowing them to keep running. Print will become a subsystem of the smart factory and print operators will move from overseeing a single component to having the capability to oversee the whole factory.

Adding print to smart factories requires a rethink in the software and hardware stack. The Digital Front End (DFE) will also need to become smart:

The SmartDFE™ from Global Graphics Software is a full software and hardware stack that does everything from job creation through to printhead electronics. It includes the OPC UA-enabled SPC. The diagram below shows the SPC on the left, which controls a number of distributed Harlequin Direct RIPs. There is a very fast, single-pass system with one Harlequin Direct PC per print bar. The SPC distributes the PDF out to the Harlequin Directs and they then RIP, screen and stream the data to the printhead driver electronics in real-time. The Harlequin Direct PC at the bottom is streaming the same print data to a Quality Inspection Vision System.

To keep up with the fastest presses, our Harlequin Direct PCs must be running at the optimum level for every job. We can use an OPC UA Server to monitor each of the Harlequin Direct PCs. Shown on the right of each print bar is the Ink Delivery System for each ink color. Its job is to pump the ink around to the inkjet heads and keep it at the ideal temperature.

The above industry terms are just a few to get you started. Let me know if there are any others you’d like me to cover in future posts.

Find out more:

1. Connecting print to a smart factory.

2. Project manager Jason Hook shows how we’ve implemented OPC UA into our solutions in this film: How to transform your inkjet business with Industry 4.0 and OPC UA. Jason demonstrates how we track performance metrics like pressure levels across an entire production line using our PC and Ink Delivery System, all while uploading it securely onto cloud servers using AWS IoT SiteWise and Azure IoT.

3. Short introduction to the OPC UA

About the author

Ian Bolton

Ian Bolton, Product Manager, Direct
Ian Bolton, Product Manager – SmartDFE and Direct

Ian Bolton is the product manager for SmartDFE™ and Direct™. He works with printer OEMs to break down barriers that might be preventing them from reaching their digital printer’s full potential. A software engineer at heart, Ian has a masters in Advanced Computer Science from the University of Manchester, and over 15 years’ experience developing software for both start-ups and large corporations, such as Arm and Sony Ericsson. He draws on this technical background and his passion for problem-solving to define and drive features and requirements for innovative software solutions for digital print.

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Smarter software – the role of software in the smart factories of the future

At the InPrint Munich 2022 exhibition, our VP of products and services, Eric Worrall, sat down for a chat with Marcus Timson of FuturePrint. They discussed the future role that software will play in connecting print to the fully automated smart factory and how, as the print subsystem becomes an integral part of the smart factory, the press will self-monitor, ensuring color is right, checking ink levels and even predicting when printheads need replacing.

Watch it here:

Find out more about connecting print to the smart factory: SmartDFE™ is a full software and hardware stack that adds print to the fully automated smart factory.

Further reading:

Connecting print to the smart factory

AI – Man vs Machine – a new way of thinking?

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Connecting the present to the past

I finally made time for a very overdue tidy of my filing cabinet yesterday. In between wondering why I still had receipts from travel in 2003, I tripped over a piece of history: it’s a Harlequin Harpoon board, a hardware accelerator for halftone screening and part of the technology that allowed Harlequin to become the first to RIP the Seybold Musicians’ speed test page in under 60 seconds.

A Harlequin Harpoon board, a hardware accelerator for halftone screening and part of the technology that allowed Harlequin to become the first to RIP the Seybold Musicians' speed test page.
A Harlequin Harpoon board, a hardware accelerator for halftone screening.

Speed is still a key focus for Global Graphics Software, but the Harpoon was designed for screening for offset plates, and developments in chips and compilers by Intel, AMD, Microsoft and others, together with further optimizations to Global Graphics Software code, removed the need for custom hardware for that use case fairly soon afterwards.

Today’s challenge is much more for digital presses, and especially for inkjet. Current press speeds make the idea of celebrating RIPping and screening a single page in less than a minute seem quaint and even slightly bizarre; very last millennium! The fastest digital presses now print well over the equivalent of 10,000 pages per minute, often with every page different, which means that at least something on every page must be RIPped and screened, at full engine speed.

For that kind of performance, or even a more common 100 m/min for a narrow-web label press, it’s now normal to use multiple RIPs in parallel and to share the pages out between them. This makes it tricky to use custom hardware unless that is tied to specific ink channel delivery, because otherwise it must be load-balanced in a way that complements the load-balancing across the RIPs. We still see some custom hardware associated with raster delivery to the heads in the press, but nowhere else in current systems.

For the same reason, increasing the raw speed of a single RIP is no longer a target; scheduling pages to each RIP in a cluster and managing the rasters delivered by each one, together with managing the interactions between those multiple RIPs, are far more important. System engineering is now a key part of being able to drive inkjet presses at full speed without an unfeasibly high bill of materials for the Digital Front End, almost as much as the core technologies themselves.

In other words Global Graphics’ Direct™ and SmartDFE™ technologies are the logical successors of the Harpoon board, bringing affordable and reliable speed to a new generation of printing technology. But there’s still something rather nice in being able to hold a physical piece of history in my hands!

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey, Distinguished Technologist, Global Graphics Software, is currently the primary UK expert to the ISO committees maintaining and developing PDF and PDF/VT and is the author of Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, a new guide offering advice to anyone with a stake in variable data printing including graphic designers, print buyers, composition developers and users.

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Calling all software developers!

The UK Careers Fair

Looking for a new role as a software developer? We’ll be attending the Cambridge Careers Fair on Friday, 4th March. Come and meet our team and find out more about what Global Graphics Software has to offer and two roles we currently have available:

Software Development Team Lead (C#)

SmartDFE Software Developer in Test

If you’re a graduate, perfect! We’re also looking for recent mathematics or computer science graduates or those who have a year or two of real software development experience to join our graduate program.

Whilst primarily aimed at graduates, we are also keen to hear from candidates without a degree who have strong demonstrable skills in software development. We’re also interested in giving opportunities to veterans and service leavers. 

Our graduate program will kick-start your career as a software engineer and give you valuable skills and insights into our industry.  

We’re looking forward to seeing you at the careers fair next week. In the meantime, read about what our software developers get up to here at Global Graphics Software:

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