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Ceramic: Technology expands tile’s design possibilities

July 8/15, 2019: Volume 35, Issue 2

By Megan Salzano

 

Advancing technologies have had a vast impact on most major flooring categories for the past several years, and perhaps none more so than tile.

In the past decade, technological advancements—some adopted from other industries—have led to major design innovations for the category. Advanced digital printing, for example, forever changed tile’s aesthetic capabilities while new sizes, shapes, textures and thicknesses also helped shape its future in the home. Due in large part to those technologies, tile is no longer relegated to the kitchen and bath but has expanded into new areas both inside and out.

Domestic and international manufacturers have capitalized on those technologies to help bring the category to new heights, launching new products and product lines that tout innovation across the board. “During the last few years, technological advances in decoration and sizes have totally transformed the ceramic tile industry,” said Paij Thorn-Brooks, vice president of marketing, Dal-Tile. “Manufacturers now have the ability to offer greater realism, more sophisticated designs, new sizes, shapes and thicknesses and increased performance.”

With so many new design options, these technologies have helped drive the category forward and also led to market growth. “The versatility of indoor and outdoor usage, the enhanced technical characteristics that create grip finish options and an unbeatable life expectancy along with the wide array of designs has spiked growth in both the residential and commercial market,” said Jana Manzella, private label, key accounts and marketing manager, Milestone.

Digital printing
The implementation of advanced digital printing has no doubt had the greatest impact on the tile category. According to Dal-Tile’s Thorn-Brooks, digital printing has transformed the industry over the past several years, and manufacturers are now able to produce even more sophisticated products that better meet the needs of the customer. “The evolution of printing technology has led to manufacturers being able to create unique patterns, designs and vibrant colors on individual tiles, similar to natural materials, which we are replicating with incredibly high degrees of authenticity,” she explained.

More specifically, Noah Chitty, Crossville’s director of technical services, said bringing this technology into the tile industry has allowed manufacturers to design tiles in Photoshop using the skills of graphic artists to create and replicate looks. “Now we can take natural stone or wood, or just about anything, put it on a flatbed scanner, take the resulting image and repro- duce it in very high definition onto the surface of a porcelain or a ceramic tile,” she said.

In addition to the trendy wood, stone and concrete looks driving the market today, digital printing has also ushered in the creation of new hybrid designs. “These futuristic printing technologies allow us to mix mediums,” explained Alp Er, general manager, Ege Seramik USA. “For example, we can have one tile created by intertwining two types of natural stone or combining a concrete look with a linen look, wood with stone. These ‘fusions’ are not normally seen in nature, but now tiles are bringing them to center stage.”

In addition, Mark Seal, vice president of supply chain at Emser, noted beyond producing 2-D replicas of these scans in ceramic inks, the latest generation of inkjet printers can print colors and glazes as raised 3-D textures, as sublimation colors that penetrate the surface of unglazed ceramic tiles and as metallic inks and lusters.

Tile manufacturers agree, in addition to aesthetic and textural innovations, new printing technology has advanced the entire manufacturing process. “The whole printing process has accelerated production,” Ege Seramik USA’s Er said. “The ink-jet printers themselves are in a constant evolving state. In the past, we had printers whose heads would clog and we’d have to stop production to clean and/or replace them to avoid a ‘tracking line’ going down the face of each tile. Now, the printers are self-cleaning. This is very time-saving and efficient for quality control.”

Through it all, manufacturers noted that perhaps the most important shift brought about through the innovation of advanced digital printing is the drive to differentiate. “As more and more tile manufacturers have embraced digital inkjet printing, competition between them has resulted in development advances, which continually push the looks that can be achieved using this technology,” Emser’s Seal said.

Shapes and sizes
New technologies have not only impacted the surface designs of tile but the shapes and sizes of those entering the market as well. These technologies allow manufacturers to create everything from mosaics in hexagons to rectangular shapes and even large-format porcelain slabs. “Technology has allowed us to go bigger, thicker and thinner,” Crossville’s Chitty noted. “We’re creating larger size formats and leaner profile thicknesses than many of us would’ve ever imagined years ago.”

Large-format tiles continue to gain popularity both in residential and commercial design. From 24 x 48-inch planks to 5 x 10-foot porcelain panels, the advancements in size have helped the category evolve considerably. However, it isn’t just about the size. Thicknesses are also playing a major role. “Thin tile is an innovation gaining traction that presents a unique opportunity for the marketplace,” Dal-Tile’s Thorn- Brooks said.

Market growth
New looks, sizes, shapes and textures equate to more than just excitement within the tile industry. These new designs—and the technologies behind them—have ushered in nearly a decade of growth for the category. “Technology and the subsequent improvements in both quality and aesthetics that it creates are opening up whole new market opportunities for tile,” Dal-Tile’s Thorn-Brooks said.

One driver behind this market opportunity is the expansion of applications. “New properties and features available in tile allow it to be used in areas where it previously might not have been considered,” said Mara Heras, vice president of marketing, Emser. “These new technologies are stretching the boundaries of historic design.”

The development of large-format, thin tile, for example, has allowed for a greater number of tile applications both residentially and commercially. Thin tile, Emser’s Heras noted, allows designers to design with the beauty of tile in places where its weight and thickness traditionally limited options.

In addition, due to its durability and performance, these tiles can replace materials that were traditionally specified. “Larger format tiles and plank tiles afford us to compete for market share from wood and LVT,” Ege Seramik USA’s Er said. “We are seeing the larger format tiles moving from the walls and floors to countertops and backsplashes. The capabilities are endless.”

Milestone’s Manzella said the use of these sizes is only going to increase moving forward. “Large-format tile production is just beginning to take hold in the U.S. market. We’re going to continue to see this trend grow as consumers are finding new uses for porcelain tile.”

Outdoor living spaces have also expanded tile’s usage and application. Consumers today demand a continuation of their interior design aesthetics when bringing the inside out but also need materials that can boast superior breaking strength, durability and frost resistance. New technologies are contributing to the outdoor renaissance. “The creation of slip-resistance technologies allows tile to be used even in exterior spaces,” Dal-Tile’s Thorn-Brooks noted.