Best of British: Global Graphics Software

Simon Eccles
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Global Graphics Software is always a bit of a conundrum to write about. It’s a successful British software developer whose users may not even know they have it. Its PostScript and PDF RIP-rendering code has underpinned a lot of the pre-press sector’s workflows for platesetters and digital presses since the late 1980s

Global Graphics' Cambridgeshire HQ
Global Graphics' Cambridgeshire HQ

Global Graphics Software is always a bit of a conundrum to write about. It’s a successful British software developer whose users may not even know they have it. Its PostScript and PDF RIP-rendering code has underpinned a lot of the pre-press sector’s workflows for platesetters and digital presses since the late 1980s.

Today’s Harlequin RIP is a rival to Adobe’s APPE tech. It has often introduced new features ahead of Adobe, while equalling or beating its accuracy and performance in rendering tricky things such as knockouts and transparencies. Since Drupa 2016, Global Graphics has also been offering screening and quality enhancement systems to inkjet press makers.

Recently winning a Queen’s Award for Innovation, its most recent published figures showed revenues of €11.61m (about £10.5m) for the year ended 31 December 2019. Currently, 63 staff are employed in the UK out of a total of 77 worldwide.

For the past 14 years, the company has occupied a floor in a modern block in an office park in Cambourne, about nine miles west of Cambridge. Before that, it occupied Barrington Hall, a characterful small manor house a few miles to the south.

“Cambourne is our head office and also where the majority of the R&D team is based,” says Jill Taylor, corporate communications director. “It’s a superb location with landscaped surroundings, lakes and nature walks. The office is mainly open-plan with a number of different sized meeting rooms. Our teams work to the Agile methodology.

“We also operate a small office in Wilmslow, Cheshire, while Global Graphics Software Inc is based in Florida. In 2004, we established Global Graphics KK, our Tokyo office.”

What markets does it serve?
“We started in the traditional graphic arts and commercial printing markets, but from 2002 have been working in the digital printing sector, initially through our close relationship with HP Indigo,” says MD Justin Bailey. “In the past four or five years, we have increased our footprint in labels and packaging, and also in industrial inkjet with customer projects in ceramics, textiles and interior décor. Wide format printers such as Roland DG also use our technology.”

However, many of its users may not even realise they have it. This is because a lot of Global Graphics’ RIPs and advanced screens go to OEMs, ie other developers who build them into their own systems and put their own labels on them.

“We are proud of the fact that our technology is used by HP Indigo for their labels and packaging presses as well as their commercial presses,” says Bailey. “We work closely with a growing number of vendors, some of which we can’t disclose without their permission, but as well as HP Indigo and HP PageWide these include Agfa, Canon, Delphax, Durst, Kodak, Mark Andy and Roland DG.”

What does it make?
The company develops “core technology components” for pre-press and digital printing, such as RIPs (called Harlequin), PDF file preparation (Mako), colour management and advanced screening. About a third of revenues consistently go back into R&D.

“We are 100% focused on RIP and related print technology for OEMs and we offer very high levels of support, with most of our technologies having an update release every quarter,” Bailey says. “Global Graphics Software has been recognised for innovation in inkjet printing, receiving an InterTech Technology Award on two consecutive years in 2018 and 2019 for our ScreenPro and PrintFlat products respectively.

“The original Harlequin RIP, now called Harlequin MultiRIP, is supplied through some of our OEM partners, and also through our subsidiary Xitron’s worldwide dealer network. The version of our Harlequin RIP that OEMs integrate is an SDK – software development kit – that we call Harlequin Host Renderer. It was named by our engineers, can you tell?”

Harlequin is not the only core technology, although probably the best known. “Especially significant in digital inkjet are ScreenPro, our standalone screening engine; and PrintFlat, which removes artefacts from the inkjet printing process and can be applied to any workflow by ScreenPro, in other words with any make of RIP.”

Four companies
Global Graphics Software is the printing software subsidiary of Global Graphics PLC, which has acquired three other wholly-owned subsidiaries in recent years: URW Type Foundry (2015), Meteor Inkjet (in 2016) and Xitron (2019).

Meteor Inkjet develops and supplies printhead drivers, software, tools and services for industrial inkjet systems. It is based in Harston near Cambridge, about 10 miles or so from the group HQ and GGS site in Cambourne.

Xitron, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, develops workflows and RIPs for pre-press imagers and digital printers, including its Harlequin-based Navigator RIP.

URW Type Foundry is a German type company with a well-regarded portfolio that pioneered the digitising of fonts in the 1970s. Its design studio is in Hamburg.

Deep roots
The company’s roots go back to 1986 as a computer language development company called Harlequin Ltd, based near Cambridge. Its founder Joe Marks was a regular presence at industry events for the next decade. Harlequin developed a RIP for the emerging PostScript page description language, apparently first used in a production system in 1988.

Harlequin became a significant alternative to Adobe, which had invented PostScript and PDF and offered its own RIPs, then as now. But in 1999, Harlequin ran into difficulties and briefly went into liquidation. It was promptly acquired by Global Graphics SA, a company that had been formed in Belgium in 1996, originally dealing in the flexo plates sector.

In its first few years, Global Graphics acquired several flexo and litho pre-press equipment manufacturers, including Heights, a Yorkshire based litho plate processor maker. In the 1990s, Heights had acquired assets and staff of the litho plate manufacturer Horsell Anitec. Global Graphics then took over Itek Colour Graphics (ICG), one of the UK’s first (and last) colour film scanner makers, from Photonics Holdings, also owner of high-speed camera maker Hadland Photonics. Heights handled the ICG range.

The various subsidiaries were realigned in 2001 as two divisions: Global Graphics Software and Global Graphics Hardware. In May 2002, Global Graphics Hardware was bought out by its management and is still in operation under the original name Heights (UK). Itek Colour Graphics was bought out from Heights in 2003 and continued to make its distinctive vertical drum scanners for many years, only stopping in 2019.

Late in 2018, Congra SARL, which owns Belgian packaging pre-press developer Hybrid Software, bid to take over Global Graphics PLC. It did not succeed, but Congra’s chairman Guido Van der Schueren (who was already Global Graphics’ chairman too) ended up with a 50.9% majority shareholding in Global Graphics PLC.

Global Graphics and Hybrid remain separate operations, although with synergies. “There is technical collaboration between Global Graphics Software and Hybrid Software on the Fundamentals bundle of technologies, from which OEMs can create a simple digital front end for the labels and packaging market,” says Bailey. “This comprises PackZ and CloudFlow from Hybrid; and Harlequin and ScreenPro from Global Graphics Software. Fundamentals is sold to OEMs by Global Graphics Software. Hybrid also resells the Harlequin RIP.”

Who’s in charge?
Justin Bailey took over as MD in January 2018 after three years as VP sales. His earlier career included 15 years at Canon UK from 1987 to 2002, ending up as senior sales executive.

Johan Volckaerts, a Belgian, was the first chairman and CEO of Global Graphics SA from 1996, then chairman from 2007 until 2014 and thereafter a non-executive director, stepping down in March 2019.

In May 2014, Volckaerts was succeeded as chairman of Global Graphics by Guido Van der Schueren, another Belgian who was and remains chairman of Hybrid Software and its owner Congra SARL. He previously founded Ghent-based labels and packaging pre-press developer Artwork Systems in 1992. After Esko acquired Artwork Systems, he stayed for a while before moving to Hybrid.

Mike Rottenborn became CEO of Global Graphics PLC on 1 January 2020, replacing Gary Fry who had been CEO since 2008. Rottenborn has worked in the graphic arts sector for 30 years and founded Hybrid Software in 2007.

Global Graphics Software’s long-standing chief technology officer is Martin Bailey, no relation to Justin. He’s been well known in the international standards community since the early 1990s, starting with committees for PDF/X and the CIP3 Print Production Format. He’s since been chair of CGATS and CEO of CIP4 (which developed JDF). He’s currently chairing the PDF Association PDF/VT Competence Centre and is project editor for the upcoming PDF/VT-3 variable data format.

What’s next?
The postponement of Drupa 2020 interrupted plans for a major new product announcement, so Global Graphics held an online “virtual rollout” on 28 April. The new launch is Direct, a “major new software platform for digital presses.”

According to Rottenborn: “Direct is the first fully integrated product line from Global Graphics, featuring our unparalleled Harlequin RIP technology, Mako for file optimisation, our award-winning ScreenPro and PrintFlat products for inkjet digital printing, tight integration with printhead drive electronics and software from Meteor Inkjet, workflow for labels and packaging from our partner Hybrid Software, and the global reseller network of our newest subsidiary, Xitron.”

The group hopes to resume normal trade show activity later this year.

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