Ceramic: Inkjet technology expands design possibilities

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February 29/March 7, 2016; Volume 30, Number 18

By Nadia Ramlakhan
There is no doubt that digital technology has made a significant impact on—if not altogether transformed—many industries. The ceramic tile industry is no exception with inkjet technology being touted as the most advanced method to date to print a design on ceramic or porcelain tile. For tile manufacturers, digital printing technology has become a driving force for new possibilities and increased depth of new product offerings.

“Like computer technology, the early days of inkjet printing had limited—and not necessarily cost-effective—applications,” said Gianni Mattioli, executive vice president, product and marketing, Dal-Tile. “However, as more manufacturers dabbled in the new space and demand increased, more ink types and colors became universally applicable.”

Today, inkjet printers can utilize eight or more colors, paving the way for a larger range of vivid shades and tones to be created on a tile. The technology has allowed for vastly improved definition of design and greater ability to replicate natural and other materials on ceramic or porcelain tile. (Literally thousands of designs can be easily sent to and stored on the printer.) While designs were typically achieved in a layered method by printing multiple colors and designs on top of each other with a screen printing technology, “Development of new designs is done using graphic software and printed on the tiles, much like an inkjet printer in your office,” Noah Chitty, Crossville’s director of technical services, explained. In illustration, Crossville’s Moonstruck combines both digital and screen printing technologies to create what the company calls a landscape-ins
pired product that recalls both ancient, native rock formations and untouched celestial surfaces.

Beyond the aesthetic benefits, the manufacturing process has also become much more efficient with inkjet technology, suppliers say. “With rotogravure and screen printing, once a design was quite literally set in stone; any changes to the design required a reprint of an entire roller or set of screens,” Mattioli explained. “Those screens and rollers also required ample storage space and careful maintenance.” By comparison, with digital printing patterns can easily be tweaked and sent to the printer. As a result, less waste is incurred as some printers can provide high-resolution mockups on plain paper so tile pieces do not go to waste during prototype tests. Once the design is approved for full-scale production, switching a line from one design to another is as simple as selecting a new file.

The seemingly unlimited designs made possible through inkjet technology are evident in many of the new products available today. For instance, Daltile’s Brickwork is a fast-fired quarry tile that offers the trendy look of brick with the ease of installation and maintenance of tile on the wall or floor. Using inkjet technology, each Brickwork tile has a unique, realistic look and can be arranged in a variety of patterns, just like traditional brick masonry. Theoretical, an upcoming launch from American Olean, is a modern take on cement that utilizes a light graphic variation created through the company’s patented Reveal Imaging technology designed to give depth and visual richness without taking away from its minimalist feel. Marazzi’s Urban District is an eclectic blend of products that complements an industrial design style. The collection is influenced by elements such as brick, metal, concrete and wood and is available in three styles: BRX (brick-look), STX (wood-look) and HEX (hexagon-shaped cotto).

Numerous benefits are associated with inkjet technology, including higher resolution of the prints, wide design variation from piece to piece and the ability to print on uneven surfaces. According to Paulo Pereira, MS International merchant, porcelain and ceramic, this has helped expand the success of wood-look porcelain tiles with various degrees of grooves and textures. “No more hazy designs and no longer will you find pieces with design repetition inside a box,” he said. “The technology creates a high degree of customization, creating the opportunity to print an infinite number of colors and designs on flat and textured surfaces.”

MS International’s Palmetto wood look was launched last year and is available in five colors. Each color has a large graphic used to develop the printed tiles, resulting in more than 30 different faces.

Aldo Magnani, who handles marketing for Casalgrande Padana, explained inkjet technology has become “the new standard in tile decoration.” Not only is it being used in most new production plants, but existing plants are being converted to use this technology as well. Magnani believes the future of tile manufacturing will become fully digital so in addition to the style and design, the glazing will also be carried out through inkjet machines. One of the company’s most recent collections, Marmoker, demonstrates the use of inkjet technology and is available in more than 22 marble and travertine looks.

Tile-producing countries such as China, Brazil, Turkey and India have already incorporated the new system, observers report. In fact, according to Pereira, inkjet technology has become the most common format in manufacturing because it not only expands the product horizons in terms of visuals, but it also improves productivity at the same time. Tile manufacturers expect to see continued innovation with the advent of inkjet technology. Among other things, they say designs using digital printing methods have allowed tile to go beyond its natural roots with mixed mediums, collections that combine wood with stone or concrete and some even offering a mixture of all three.

Morena Cabassi, who oversees marketing at Ceramiche Brennero, sees the trend continuing to develop while more and more manufacturers “adopt the technology to keep up with the changing tastes of consumers.” One of the company’s latest introductions, Terra, was produced using inkjet to create various graphics and make the collection look as natural as possible. Then the product was enriched with a brushing process to make its surfaces bright but not full-field, giving it an effect of natural aging.

Ceramiche Coem/Ceramica Fioranese started using inkjet technology in 2002. Reverso by Coem and Urban Avenue by Fioranese are examples of how inkjet technology can provide a much higher definition and graphic variation that couldn’t be achieved with previous design methods.

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