January 22/29, 2018: Volume 33, Issue 6
By K.J. Quinn
Ongoing investments in R&D and improved capabilities across manufacturing footprints are expected to pay off for ceramic tile makers. Specifically, advances in digital printing are enabling producers to introduce game-changing formats and designs that meet consumer and commercial end-user needs for performance, styling and sustainability.
“With new technology in digital decoration techniques bringing the highest aesthetics and emerging formats, offering tile as a potential candidate for many more areas inside and outside of a building today, the growth of ceramic tile usage in North America should continue for the next few years,” said Ryan Fasan, Tile of Spain’s technical consultant.
Ongoing investments made by tile suppliers are bolstering production efficiency and speed to market while creating new, value-added products. Although the industry seems to have a firm grasp on technology, new trends are introduced and customer demands shift, so there is always the challenge of keeping up. “We are constantly evaluating our technology, always looking for new ways to improve our product offerings,” said Gianni Mattioli, executive vice president, product and marketing, Dal-Tile. “Our digital printing techniques allow us to create tile that is so realistic, most customers cannot discern between what is tile and what is the natural surface we are imitating.”
Following are illustrations of some of the latest innovations:
High-definition printing is allowing manufacturers to supply consumers with high-quality floor tiles that resemble natural materials such as wood planks and marble. “The products now have the appearance of natural materials,” said Lee Wright, CID, NCIDQ, LEED AP, a New York-based designer whose firm specializes in holistic interior architecture. “As a designer, this is a game changer.”
Image resolution is integral to creating products with superior characteristics in terms of detail, color fidelity and graphic designs. “These advances are a result of the investments in technology made both by our companies and the upstream supply chain,” said Vittorio Borelli, chairman, Confindustria Ceramica, the Italian Association of Ceramics. “Examples include wood, cement, resin and stone-look ceramic tiles which reproduce the original materials so faithfully that even experts have difficulty telling them apart.”
The digital printing process has become so sophisticated that manufacturers are creating tile that varies from piece to piece, much like the real products. A case in point is the Marazzi Urban District BRX collection, which closely resembles the look and feel of brick but is actually ceramic tile.
One of the latest developments in digital decoration is three-dimensional surfaces. “Digital decoration offers a potentially unlimited variety of graphic solutions, eliminating all repetitiveness and giving ceramic tiles an even more natural look,” Confindustria Ceramica’s Borelli said. “This allows for increasingly realistic surfaces with greater tactile appeal, a key purchasing factor that is attracting growing interest amongst consumers all over the world.”
Experts find that as baby boomers purchase or renovate empty-nest housing and millennials enter the housing market, they are looking for interior decorating products with health and safety top of mind. “The look of a nature-based product is a more popular look and style because people associate natural materials as being more sustainable,” Wright explained. “Innovative and creative styles are also becoming more popular again, especially in the commercial sectors, where designers are seeking to do things differently and showcase their own styles.”
Looks like wood
Vendors continue to churn out larger formats and unusual shapes to accommodate demand. “With the increased demand for new shapes and sizes, we are implementing new technology that allows us to create everything from beautiful mosaics in a variety of shapes to large-format porcelain slabs,” Mattioli said.
Experts say the latest porcelain tile panels are opening up possibilities for creative applications in residences as well as installation efficiencies. Some of the advances made in the field of large-size marble-effect porcelain panels were on display at Cersaie in Bologna last September.
“This is an area in which Italian tile manufacturers have been focusing their aesthetic research efforts recently with the aim of developing increasingly elegant and sophisticated materials,” Confindustria Ceramica’s Borelli said. “We expect this trend to make further headway in the market in 2018, exploiting the natural appeal and sustainability for which Italian tile is renown.”
New designs in products such as porcelain slabs are offering even more incentives for homeowners and specifiers to choose tile for more than just showers and backsplashes. “We are seeing some convergence of designs appealing across both commercial and residential,” said David Koenig, vice president and general manager, Crossville Studios, the tile maker’s distribution division. “Porcelain slabs are starting to come into the market and will continue to gain market presence over the next two to three years.”
Further technological advances will allow tile designers even more artistic freedom, industry member say, which is expected to generate a plethora of never-seen-before styles in 2018.
Thin is in
Other advances are evident in the proliferation of thin tile formats. These products, experts say, give consumers the ability to install tile over tile, thereby resulting in less downtime. “I believe the thin tile technology is the innovation that brings the most value to our end consumers,” said Luca Setti, chief sales and marketing officer, Florida Tile.
The architectural and design community has embraced large-format thin tiles (products measuring
4.5 to 6mm thick) as a unique design opportunity for new construction as well as renovations of existing residential and commercial properties. But it’s important to note there are special considerations when working with this format.
“Thin-body porcelain tile installation is markedly different from standard-body (> 7mm) porcelain tile methods,” said Brian Pistulka, business manager, Mapei Tile & Stone Installation Systems. “It requires special setting techniques to prevent breakage during and after installation. The work done in our research labs has provided the first completely documented information on all aspects of this installation process.”