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Ceramic: Digital printing advances boost realism in visuals

January 2/9, 2017: Volume 31, Number 15

By K.J. Quinn

Groundbreaking production technology is one of the greatest factors impacting the evolution of ceramic and porcelain floor designs. Vendors are pushing the envelope to reach new aesthetic heights and still satisfy consumer demands for in-style products.

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 10.58.14 AM“Through digital printing, we are able to scan in virtually any image and reproduce that image on tile, just like scanning and printing a picture,” said Massimo Ballucchi, Dal-Tile’s director of product design. “We can develop ceramic tile that looks exactly like the natural surfaces but still features the benefits of tile such as durability, cleanability and high performance.”

Digital printing capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds the past three years as tile producers discover new mediums to apply to ceramic and porcelain surfaces. “Advances in the style and number of print heads [allow] for a more defined graphic and provides more channels and opportunities to combine different colors and glazes to create different textures,” said Sean Cilona, director of marketing and product development, Florida Tile. “Advancements are now allowing cleaning and maintenance to be done more easily and efficiently.”

The digital decoration process can be controlled by a sophisticated robotic eye system that can “read” the molded face of the tile to automatically apply specific decorations and finishes, so the visual matches the texture. “Pairing these new embellishment capabilities with powerful laser scanners in the production line allows for some of the most sophisticated collections of tile ever seen,” said Ryan Fasan, technical consultant, Tile of Spain. “Read: ‘When there is a cleft in the structure, we can print a shadow there to enhance it.’ The same is true for the luster and metallic effects.”

The end result is the creation of visuals that mirror the look and feel of many natural materials. “As the technology is improving, the tiles are able to take on the look of the natural stone or wood they are trying to emulate,” said Katie Peralta, owner, Triton Stone Group of New Orleans, Harahan, La. “The inkjet technology allows porcelain and ceramic to appear as if it was real marble.”

Vendors such as Dal-Tile report making record investments, which allow the company to efficiently produce tile that meets the aesthetic demands of its customers while further differentiating its products. “We are now able to produce such high- definition visuals that capture the exact look of whatever we are trying to achieve that even industry professionals cannot discern what is tile and what is the natural surface we are imitating,” Ballucchi explained.

While digital printing techniques are unique to each collection and technology, the dominant factor in this type of production is speed to market. “From development to launch, the speed to market of a new product has been greatly reduced while at the same time providing a more realistic and varied product than we have ever seen before,” Cilona said.

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 10.58.20 AMAll of this adds up to enhanced aesthetics at lower production costs, savings that can be passed along to consumers and end users. “The advancements have come a long way, and I really love some of the new introductions that have been presented to me recently,” said Heather Elko McCanna, IIDA, LEED AP, Lambert Architecture + Interiors, Winston-Salem, N.C.

The porcelain tile panel category is an excellent example of how the category is enhancing its value to residential customers. “It’s taking us to new levels in terms of aesthetics and possibilities for creative applications in residences, as well as installation efficiencies,” said Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of marketing, Crossville. “Porcelain tile panels are generously proportioned—upwards of 1 x 3 meters, which means they cover lots of surface area with minimal grout lines for sleek, sophisticated looks.”

New trends emerge

Many advancements in color, pattern and texture were displayed last September at Cersaie in Bologna, Italy. “The trends we discovered were consistent in their emphasis on texture and a continued focus on brilliantly conceived high profile designer collaborations,” said Kristin Coleman, marketing representative, Ceramics of Italy.

Tiles that mimic the look of natural stone, cement, marble, slate and wood are trending. “I see the continuation of stone-like looks moving from more classic calm marbles to more complicated stones that can be a hybrid of a slate and quartz, or even mixes with cements and plasters,” Cilona added.

Encaustic cements are expected to remain in vogue for smaller format floor tile, as patterns allow for both repeating designs that read as macro graphics, or are frequently used in a mix of decorative patterns. “Ceramic trend combinations in design have also been successful,” said Bob Baldocchi, chief marketing officer/vice president sales support at Emser Tile. “Mixing trends such as a wood look with a concrete look in a contemporary color palette and collections of sizes would be an example of this.”

In addition to stone, wood looks were prevalent at Cersaie, as tile makers added their own twist and utilized production methods to create a new typology of floor and wall coverings. “Some are inspired by exotic woods, offering a beautiful, sustainable alternative to rare hardwoods such as Kauri,” Coleman said, “while others recreate the warmth and imperfections of wood in 2cm outdoor pavers, large thin slabs, kaleidoscopic patterns and three-dimensional tiles that are virtually impossible to achieve with real timber.”