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Ceramic: Next-gen digital printing technologies unlock tile’s potential

July 3/10: Volume 32, Issue 2

By Lindsay Baillie

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 3.26.15 PMDigital printing has helped to change the tile industry by providing manufacturers with limitless designs that mimic what is trending amongst consumers. Whether it’s natural stone, cement, marble, slate or wood looks, digital printing offers consumers the looks they want, the ability to put it where they want and at a desirable price range—all of which ultimately benefits the specialty retailer.

Case in point is Confindustria Ceramica, which finds digital printing to be one of the key technologies used in Italian ceramic tile production. “When it was first introduced, it could only guarantee satisfactory results for certain materials, but it can now be used successfully for any kind of product,” said Vittorio Borelli, chairman. “Its role has been further strengthened by the emergence of the second major innovation in ceramics, that of large-format panels and slabs, given that digital technology is essential for decorating these products.”

As technologies continue to advance, manufacturers from all over the globe are developing newer visuals and textures. Some of the newer design trends Barbara Haaksma, vice president of marketing Emser Tile, has noticed include Moroccan and Spanish looks, as well as antique visuals that mimic handmade tile. The main development she sees focuses on the manufacturer’s ability to customize products. “Another trend we’re seeing is the ability to create art on tile. Artists are now doing renderings and it’s being reproduced on tile. All of that is great to do now that the technology allows for it. I think in general we’re seeing a lot of customization.”

Haaksma explained that the new customizable features of tile are a bonus for specialty retailers, especially those who have designers or customers who want to create their own images. This trend lets tile take on higher-end looks with greater nuances, not only among tiles but customers as well.

Other tile manufacturers, such as Dal-Tile—the parent company of Marazzi, Daltile, American Olean and Ragno—are also creating more sophisticated products with the help of next-generation digital printing. “The evolution of printing technology has led to manufacturers being able to create unique patterns and designs on individual tiles, similar to the natural materials, like wood or stone, which we are replicating with high degrees of authenticity,” said Gianni Mattioli, executive vice president, product and marketing.

Part of Dal-Tile’s digital printing technology includes what the company calls “Reveal Imaging.” As Mattioli explained: “[It] is our state-of-the-art digital printing process that produces realistic color, detail and veining that is unique on every single tile for a look that’s virtually indistinguishable from natural stone. Digital printing technology is giving us—as well as other tile manufacturers—a competitive advantage over other flooring categories.”

Beyond the ability to recreate various designs and patterns is the ability of the new technologies to apply different materials to the tile. For example, the innovations at Crossville allow its digital printer to manufacture gloss, matte and luster glaze effects on its tiles, according to Craig Miller, R&D director.

Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 3.26.40 PMMS International (MSI) is also incorporating newer printing technology that enables a quicker production process. “Digital printer manufacturing companies, such as Kerajet from Spain, recently developed an inkjet printer that will be able to apply both glaze and ink in one step,” said Paulo Pereira Jr., senior merchant porcelain. “Since these cutting-edge digital printers can apply both enamels and solids simultaneously—besides the basic graphic effect—products can also incorporate other effects such as metallic, shiny or anti-slip effects in the same, one-step application.”

In that same vein, advanced technologies employed at Emser Tile are allowing the manufacturer to incorporate ink-jet printing deeper into the surface. “It’s not just a print sitting on top of the surface, but it actually becomes ingrained into the bisque,” Haaksma said. “So then the patterns and the colors are now infused into the tile itself.”

Overall, newer printing technologies are allowing manufacturers to innovate throughout the entire production process. For Borelli, this includes “image acquisition techniques that allow for ever higher levels of definition; increasingly powerful graphic design software capable of processing the images; more precise and high-performance print heads; and the development of suitable ceramic glazes.”

Retailer benefits
While next-generation digital printing provides manufacturers with benefits, it ultimately helps specialty retailers sell tile product at higher margins, according to tile executives.

These new technologies are enabling the consolidation of flooring products including wood, laminates, natural stones, etc. “For specialty retailers the requirement for training their sales team goes down as product lines are consolidated,” MSI’s Pereira said. “In addition, it enables more individualism for customers in the design process as the amount of choice significantly increases.”

Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 3.26.09 PMWith the help of digital printing, consumers can also get high-end looks and high-performance flooring—both of which are available through porcelain tile at a much more affordable price. One example of this is found in tile that resembles natural stone. “[Natural stone] continues to gain strength in the market, but it is not suitable for all applications,” Emser Tile’s Haaksma said. “So you can get the realistic stone look with the performance, durability and affordability of porcelain. This way you can put it in a kitchen countertop, or wet space where you wouldn’t usually want to put a stone.”

Higher margins are available to retailers courtesy of the attractive characteristics made possible through digitally printed tile. “These types of products are letting retailers expand their margin dollars by drawing more consumers to their showrooms to buy products that were once unimaginable for a typical homeowner,” Mattioli explained.

Homeowners, industry expert say, are often inspired by botique hotels, spas and hospitality spaces they encounter through traveling. “In the past, the durability concerns and price points of rare stones and marbles prevented many consumers from bringing these gorgeous high-end looks in their own homes,” Mattioli explained. “However, through Dal-Tile’s Reveal Imaging technology, our brands are able to offer the visuals of rare stones and marbles in a tile product. This lets consumers have the look they love with the performance that real-life activity and real life budgets demand.”

For Confindustria Ceramica’s Borelli, higher margins are attainable by comparing past and present products. “All you have to do is compare these products with those that were available just five years ago to appreciate the progress that has been made. But it is crucial for retailers to communicate this value to their customers so that they are prepared to pay a premium for ceramic products that stand out in terms of innovation, technology and technical characteristics.”

Digitally differentiating
Most digital printing technologies are not proprietary—meaning manufacturers are often using similar machinery to produce hundreds of different products. When it comes to differentiating digitally printed tile, most manufacturers keep a close eye on developing trends to extract key details that will be unique to their product lines.

Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 3.26.04 PM“While digital decoration technology is capable of creating products with superior technical characteristics, it does mean the same plant solutions are being adopted across the entire Italian ceramic industry,” Borelli said. “What really sets companies apart is their stylistic choices, their use of graphic designs, colors and surface textures.”

Crossville aims to differentiate itself from other tile manufacturers by blending traditional printing technology and ceramic material effects with digitally printed images. “We call it a ‘digital-plus’ approach that allows us to create looks that are unique to Crossville products and are not replicable,” Miller explained.

For manufacturers such as Dal-Tile and its associate brands, differentiation comes from not only creating differing designs, but also from developing multiple products. “The vast array of tile offered by our brands provides every customer with a solution for every challenge they may face,” Mattioli explained.

 

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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.”

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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. Continue reading Digital inkjet technology: A revolutionary development