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Ceramic: Technology enables suppliers to render more realistic designs

September 5, 2016; Volume 31, Number 6

By K.J. Quinn

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-10-06-20-amIt’s hard to believe a category representing one of the world’s oldest forms of floor covering can undergo a makeover. But that is exactly what is transpiring with ceramic tile, as new digital printing technologies are enabling producers to introduce game-changing formats and designs not seen since inkjet technology was introduced about 16 years ago.

“Digital printing– especially when combined with more traditional decorating techniques–has provided a level of depth not seen before in tile,” observed Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of marketing, Crossville. “With porcelain tile panels, we’re creating very convincing and unique styles that look exceptional on formats that are measured in feet, not inches.” Crossville’s new Altered State porcelain tile collection offers the look of antiqued metals, oxidized and aged from the passing of time.

The advent of digital printing and creation of panels and pavers are innovations that stem from equipment developments achieved by tile producers. For example, the 2-cm-thick pavers created by manufacturers within the past three years are getting slicker with the addition of plank formats and sophisticated inkjet decorations, including glazes and metallic, industry watchers say. “These pavers are allowing for seamless transitions to exterior rooms and landscapes, with traditional thicknesses being used indoors,” said Ryan Fasan, technical consultant for Tile of Spain. “Traditional trades such as masons and landscapers are embracing these new formats wholeheartedly as the porcelain versions are lighter and easier to work with than their concrete counterparts.”

The trend towards extra-large tile thicknesses such as 3.7 and 12 mm are opening up new applications for tile. “Extra-thick tiles are now becoming widely used on residential driveways, sidewalks, outdoor walkways and plazas,” said Vittorio Borelli, president of Confindustria Ceramica.

Digital printing continues to be an innovation allowing manufacturers to develop tile lines that meet consumer demands for wood, stone, marble and even brick looks. “The digital printing technology is definitely helping bring ceramic products to market faster, providing true natural looks and graphics,” said Sean Cilona, director of marketing and product development, Florida Tile.

Dal-Tile Corp. reports utilizing digital technology to produce high definition (HD) visuals, which capture the exact look of whatever design it is replicating. “We can create marble-look tile that features the variations and veining found in real marble,” said Massimo Ballucchi, director of product design. “For wood looks, we can create tile that incorporates the texture, color variations and knotting of natural wood.” Daltile’s new Brickwork uses random shade variation and distressed edges to emulate brick found in historic metropolitan architecture.

Decorative trends driven by technology

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-10-06-30-amThe decorative trends are as exciting as the technological ones in floor and wall tile today, experts say. Many advancements being made in color, pattern and texture will be on display this month at Cersaie in Bologna, Italy. “I expect to see products such as wood and stone effect floor tiles, while the wall tile segment will see a strong focus on textured surfaces and three-dimensional effects alongside elegant, sophisticated colors,” Confindustria Ceramica’s Borelli said.

Trending styles include matte black finishes, distressed wood planks, vintage patterns and geometric designs, including hexagons and metallics with mirrored effects. Some of the latest products feature glazes and lusters, which can be applied digitally, as well as metallic and specialty finishes. “This is allowing for the most realistic and nuanced finishes we have ever seen in tile,” Tile of Spain’s Fasan said. “The latest stone looks can actually have the mixed gloss level patina of a stone that’s been installed for centuries by using drop-on-demand glazes in specific spots on each piece.”

The digital printing process has become so sophisticated that manufacturers can create tile that varies from piece to piece, much like the real products. Size does matter as vendors continue churning out larger formats and shapes to accommodate pent up demand. “Trends continue to show the category moving to larger sizes, shapes and expanded applications such as walls,” said Bob Baldocchi, chief marketing officer/vice president sales support, Emser Tile. “The last year saw an influx of hexagon shaped product, longer wood planks and linear formats of 20 x 40 inches and larger.”

“12 x 12-inch and 18 x 18-inch are no longer the best-selling sizes,” Florida Tile’s Cilona added. “Now you’re looking at 24 x 24, 6 x 24 and 8 x 35 inches. Plank and rectangular sizes are really popular with commercial [applications] and are now even going into the residential market.”

In terms of colors, gray is still the champion, while creams, blues and greens are finding their way into the spectrum. “In the U.S. market, we’re seeing a warming of metallic finishes and colors that is now being incorporated into tile design,” Crossville’s Waldrep said. “Brass is back. Gray hues are shifting from cool to warm.”

Expanded tile usage in the home

Ceramic tile and stone are valued for their hygienic properties, toughness, natural looks and durability. These are among the many attributes driving these products as popular choices for floors, walls, counters and backsplashes, in both wet and dry applications. One of the fastest growing residential applications is the master bedroom.

“With ensuites becoming an oasis that often spills out into the room and curbless shower systems becoming the norm, the entire master suite is often treated as a wet room,” Tile of Spain’s Fasan said. “Where the flooring was frequently broadloom in the past, we are now seeing the same tile flooring spill into the master bedroom with under floor radiant heat throughout.”

Wet areas are at the center of most tile installations in the home, such as kitchens, bathrooms and mud rooms. That’s because of the need for products that resist water and are easy to clean. “With that, you solve two major problems in those areas,” Crossville’s Waldrep said. “Tile is practically impervious to water, and when the right coefficient of friction is selected, it provides a safe and timeless solution to the space’s needs.”

Tile vendors see big growth opportunities in other residential areas. “Tile is going into kitchens and baths, entryways, hallways and even on accent walls and stairways,” Florida Tile’s Cilona said. “Ten years ago, no one thought about making an accent wall in the hallway, using stone and tile, and [consumers] are becoming savvier with that.”

As lifestyles shift to more natural and organic environments, more homeowners are reportedly moving their lives outdoors. “To address this shift, we are developing several tile collections that feature outdoor and indoor versions of the tile to allow homeowners to create a continuous flow from space to space,” Ballucchi said.

Looking ahead, tile trends are expected to continue evolving, benefiting from HD technologies that are now more common than ever in manufacturing. “It is giving tile designers unlimited options in what gets created, which in turn is giving consumers expanded, creative choices in how and where to use tile and natural stone in their projects,” Emser Tile’s Baldocchi said. “This creativity and flexibility has made tile a true focus of the design process vs. it simply being a functional element.”