Posted on

Digital inkjet technology: A revolutionary development

How it’s changing the industry one tile at a time

Volume 27/Number 21; March 3/10, 2014

By Louis Iannaco

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 10.49.50 AM“It will revolutionize the industry.” “It’s a game-changer.”  “The business is never going to be the same.”

When it comes to new products and innovations, we’ve heard it all before. But just how many times has a real change actually happened? It is a rare instance when something new turns out to be truly revolutionary in changing the way things are done in any given industry. But, in ceramic tile, there is one fairly recent development that has done just that.

With the advent of digital inkjet technology, manufacturers can make their products look like anything they want. In developing new designs, product surfaces have become works of art, canvasses on which product designers can now work their magic. Today, any shade of color, texture or pattern can seemingly be achieved. The digital process is, in fact, a revolutionary development in the world of ceramic tile.

Michael Mariutto, founder and president of Mediterranea, said digital printing means new products and ideas can arrive to market much faster than before. “This enhanced speed helps tile producers keep on top of the latest design trends and quickly satisfies the needs of a rapidly changing marketplace. Plus, inkjet technology provides the capability to achieve precise looks and realistic graphics not possible with older technologies.”

These advances have brought positive changes to all aspects of the ceramic category, said Sean Cilona, director of marketing, Florida Tile. “First, in terms of production quality, speed and efficiency, they’ve all been enhanced by this new process. The cost of investment is quite high and there’s a substantial learning curve, but I believe any producer that wants to be competitive needs to invest in this technology.”Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 11.07.13 AM

In terms of aesthetics, he noted, the new technology has brought about an era of high quality and design possibilities the industry hasn’t seen in decades. “The possibilities of the graphic alone are endless in terms of reproduction and creative options,” Cilona said. “That, combined with other newer glaze technologies, is giving us effects that are incredibly realistic and beautiful.”

Similar to Cilona, Noah Chitty, director of technical services at Crossville, said the use of inkjet technology has allowed for more design options and advanced, intricate looks. “The depth and definition of our designs have increased exponentially with the advent of inkjet printing, whether they are replications of natural materials like stones, fabrics, leathers or other manmade materials.”

As Lori Kirk-Rolley, Dal-Tile’s vice president of brand marketing, noted, it’s been exciting to observe the changes in the tile industry over the past five years, especially in terms of technological innovations. “Overall, the industry has increased its use of sophisticated digital printing technologies, thus expanding the spectrum of colors and realistic graphics that can be achieved on a tile.”

Digital inkjet technology hasn’t only changed the types of designs offered in tile, noted Terry Marchetta, director, residential design, Mannington, manufacturers can now achieve “photo-realistic, natural looks with enhanced texture, creating visuals that simulate the variations and variety found in natural materials.”

Mannington uses inkjet technology to create crisp graphics combined with a variety of natural textures. “We can now offer wood and stone visuals with amazing variation from tile to tile,” Marchetta explained. “In the past, our repeat sizes were limited to the size of cylinders. Now we have the ability to create unlimited visuals.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 11.07.44 AMTexture has become an important part of the company’s development process. “Because of the ability of the ink droplets to ‘fill in’ the crevices where roto-color just ‘rolls over’ them, we now can create even more natural looks,” she added.

Crossville employs inkjet technology as an added tool in the creation of new products. By combining inkjet with other printing technologies, Chitty said, “we can create depths and richness in products that are more intricate than when any single technology is employed alone. Rather than use inkjet by itself, we include it as one of several techniques to achieve the desired look of a finished product.”

At Dal-Tile and American Olean, Reveal Imaging is the digital process being utilized, with mosaics as the latest offering in the Dal-Tile portfolio to receive enhanced visual appeal thanks to advanced inkjet technology.

The emphasis in tile now is no longer how to create designs, but which ones to produce. The dialogue has shifted from how to decorate tiles to what decoration is desirable. “As the realm of the possible has expanded, what looks good on tile and in tile applications is being reconsidered,” said Eric Astrachan, executive director, Tile Council of North America (TCNA). “We’ve gone from approximating natural materials like wood, stone and metals to matching them, and now to hyperrealism. Inkjet opens up entirely new markets for tiles in furniture and signage. If the printing press ushered in the age of modernity, it’ll be exciting to see what printing on tiles brings as this technology matures.”