Digital printing may just now be making its way into the manufacturing process of some flooring categories, but for ceramic it has been changing the game for more than a decade.
The advent of digital printing—versus the traditional silk screen and roto-color—brought with it a whole new world for tile. It may have started slow, with tile manufacturers finding they could achieve clear, crisp visuals with ease—but today there is no limit to what digitally printed tile can accomplish. From ultra-realistic designs to large- and small-format tile to aftereffects such as texturizing, the technology continues to push tile forward.
“Digital printing has truly revolutionized the tile industry by substantially elevating the realism of designs,” said Claudio Caselli, senior vice president, product research and development, Dal-Tile. “We are now able to create visuals that so closely mimic the natural design of the original material we are trying to emulate (i.e., marble, stone, wood, etc.) that it is many times hard for the consumer to tell the difference between the tile design and the natural visual. Thus, gorgeous marble visuals on porcelain tile, for example, can now be installed in homes or commercial spaces where they would have been cost or performance prohibitive in the past, opening up a whole new world of design possibilities.”
But that’s not all. Digital printing also allowed for new shapes and sizes to emerge to satisfy the evolving demands on the consumer. “Digital printing has allowed companies to produce smaller, more personalized runs of tiles, thus increasing capabilities to sell exclusive lines,” explained Suzanne Zurfluh, director of design and trend at Emser Tile. “When screen printing was used to apply designs to ceramic tile, large quantities of the same pattern needed to be produced to make orders cost effective. Digital printing has also provided better print resolution while utilizing more colors and more complex designs that produce higher quality tile designs with extremely realistic visuals.”
Mauneal Shah, merchant, MSI, agreed, noting, “With digital printing factories we’re able to produce more intricate and detailed designs; we’re able to customize and make production more cost efficient. Digital printing helped reduce costs for smaller production runs, achieve shorter production lead times and reduce waste. All of these helped bring a quality product to the market faster—and at a lower cost.”
What’s more, digital printing has taken the realism to even greater heights. “It’s pretty interesting right now,” said Sean Cilona, vice president of product and marketing, Virginia Tile. “Now we’ve started to really understand that you can start making aftereffects. Now you’re getting to the point where we’re doing minimal amounts of texture in the pressing of the tile and adding a lot of texture with the digital technology. What they’re able to do now is do the texture in a register—that was something completely foreign to the tile industry. So, the digital printing allows you to put a texture in the exact position where you would feel it in the real product. In the early days, [that wasn’t the case].”
For some, digital printing has even helped to create a better process between manufacturer, designer and end user. “There is freedom to have a more collaborative process that wasn’t easily achieved or even possible with previous technologies,” explained Jana Manzella, senior vice president of sales and business development, Florim USA.
Why it matters at retail
The fact that tile has come leaps and bounds in just 10 years and even continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible is not just a fun fact for the category; it’s actually a key selling point at the retail store level.
“By ensuring that our visuals are beautiful, highly realistic and in line with the very latest interior design trends, we are giving our dealers the best products available in the market to offer their customers,” Dal-Tile’s Caselli explained. “The heightened level of design sophistication and realism in wood-look tile, for example, provides our dealers with tile options that not only rival the beauty of natural wood flooring, but go a step further and offer waterproof properties, durability, low maintenance as well as enhanced performance features such as greater cleanliness and antimicrobial protection.”
Florim USA’s Manzella agreed, adding, “With a life expectancy of 60-plus years, adding digital printing offers extensive design options. When you offer a product with so many benefits—and a design that is like nothing you’ve seen before—it truly sells itself.”
Digital printing also greater flexibility for the manufacturers, which in turn gives their dealer customers better access to the products they need. “Manufacturers can stay in lockstep with emerging trends by offering consumers more design options in a timely manner,” Emser Tile’s Zurfluh said. “This also broadens a company’s consumer base by being able to offer a design for every look and feel that is desired.”