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Digital transformation: Understanding the evolution of ceramic decoration technology

Diary of a Tile Addicts Joe Simpson looks at how decorative technology has evolved over the past quarter of a century.

It is less than 25 years since the industrial implementation of inkjet technology in the ceramic sector. No doubt, in years to come, the next generation of tile buyers and installers will assume that this decorative technique has been ever present in ceramic tile manufacturing. That just goes to show the rapid pace of manufacturing technology development over the past three decades.

In the early days of industrialised tile production, decoration was largely undertaken by either passing biscuit fired tiles underneath of waterfall of coloured glaze to produce largely gloss-finished plain tiles, or by silk screening a pattern or decoration onto a fired biscuit tile, primed with engobe, using a silk screen. This latter technique could produce patterned tiles, but inevitably resulted in image repetition.

What’s more, there were environmental side effects. In order for tiles to pass through decorative technologies such as screen printing, it was necessary to prepare basins of flat inks, usually exclusive to each design being manufactured. On many occasions, because the same design may not be produced again for months, the excess ink from the first production batch often had to be thrown away because it would spoil over time.

This was still the case at the next step along the evolutionary decoration ladder, rotary screen printing. These were developed to provide more face variation, and thus less obvious patterns or design repetitions. They then moved on again from cylindrical rotary silk screens to multiple cylinders feeding a continuous silk screen band. This added additional layers of sophistication. At each stage in this evolution, the objective was more accurate and naturalistic reproductions of marble, sandstone, limestone, terracotta, cement, and – some time later – wood-effect tiles.

Since the first commercially viable digital printheads were produced around 23 years ago, the pace of development in surface sophistication has been exponential. Digital printheads allow faster prototyping, higher definition images, extremely accurate copies of photographic or hand-created images, authentic reproductions from scans of natural stone or timber and so on.

The early printheads operated much like the inkjet printers we use at home or in the office. They used four colour-specific, solvent-based, inks with suspensions of fine particulates. The tile’s finished colour came from the firing of the natural mineral oxides in the inks.

As the printers became faster, more controllable, and ever more accurate, they evolved to do much more than just print designs. The results were innovations in structure, finish, and special effects; plus ever more sophisticated applications of colour and pattern.

Grey and white ink printheads are widely used in tandem with the four original colours to emphasise white veins in marbles, or wood grains in timber-effect tiles. The increase in printheads has also enhanced colour capability by achieving greater saturation and cleaner mid-spectrum hues.

There have also been health, safety and environmental benefits. The advent of acrylic inks was a health and safety positive for factory workers, while also reducing the amount of hazardous waste that, if not filtered out and removed, could damage the environment. Now the run-off from glazing lines can be filtered on site, with the water being recycled. The recovered solids can be reintroduced when refining ceramic material for the body of the tile: a win-win situation.

This evolution of digital decoration technology continues apace. This year saw one Spanish manufacturer, Realonda, win a coveted Alfa d’Oro award for achieving digital application of mineral glaze at production volumes. This has long been desired by the tile sector due to the depth and saturation of tone achievable when using glaze as opposed to ink.

But it goes much further, as there are many different effects, and mixed finishes, that can be achieved using this technology. It is truly a game changer.

It was to help explain this and other technologies that are driving progress in the tile market that InstallerSHOW asked me to help create Surface Area innovation feature. This will explore and introduce many of the cutting-edge manufacturing techniques that are turbo-charging ceramic product innovation. It will span everything from the use of digital dust deposition in 20mm exterior tiling, sinking inks to create embossed-in-register designs on marble-effect worktops, and the harnessing of continuous pressing and rectification to create ceramic wallpaper and modular tiling collections.

On the decorative front, a selection of world-class tiling brands will showcase the use of digital glue and granilla to print texture. Visitors will also be able to see how today’s polishing techniques have achieved new surface options.

This will also be the first UK opportunity to understand the true impact of digital glazing: a technology – as explained above – that represents a step-change in surface design. Factor in intricate arrays of glazed 3D pieces that can form continuous tiled surfaces around vanity units and other furniture items, the dynamic alchemy of reactive glazes, and the glamorous beauty of metallic tiles coated using PVD (physical vapour deposition); and you have a curated collection of sector-leading contemporary ceramics.

To make sure you get the best of the experience, tile experts will be on hand to guide visitors through the cutting-edge technologies on display; while QR codes will give assess to the downloadable information. The aim is to help InstallerSHOW attendees explore the outer limits of ceramic technology, and fully appreciate the commercial potential of these exciting and innovative materials.

Gone are the days when a tile’s surface texture was determined by the mould used to press the tile into shape. Many modern manufacturers have transitioned away from multiple mould structures for their catalogue in favour of digital manipulation of the surface. The ability to add and remove volume (surface structure) by as little as ±1 mm creates a broad range of textures that can be applied to a tile’s surface after the body is pressed. This change has a positive effect on both production efficiency and aesthetic appeal, each working as a force multiplier on the other.

For the end user, it means better aesthetics at a lower cost. Digital application of structure leads to far greater variety in surface texture than can be achieved using physical moulds. Digitally applied texture also allows the visual graphic to be directly applied in register. Perfect alignment of the structure with graphic cues allows the topography of that physical attribute or detail – like a wood grain or marble vein – to align perfectly with the design. This greatly enhances the tactile appeal of tiles.

Digital effects also provide the ability to print a targeted matt, satin, or gloss effect on certain areas of a particular tile’s surface. This makes it possible to create truly natural spontaneity with unbelievable realism.

The ability to add gloss, matt and even refractive inks over surface graphics creates deeply nuanced surfaces. The addition of true ceramic glazes to this mix will create another explosion of design potential for product development in years to come. It is, truly, a game changer.

The saturation and range of effects available with additional glaze compared to inks are so much broader that tile designers have barely even scratched the surface so far. It is a truly exciting time in the ceramic design space: one we want to share with our audience at InstallerSHOW 2024.

The Surface Area attraction will be located on stand 4C18 at InstallerSHOW 2024 and forms part of the wider Installer Kitchens & Bathrooms event. Installer Kitchens & Bathrooms is set to debut at InstallerSHOW 2024, offering a blend of technology, tools, innovation, and inspiration for attendees. This new addition will provide a packed content programme across two theatres, aimed at bringing the industry closer through education, knowledge sharing, and networking opportunities. It is backed by a number of organisations including the BMA, BiKBBI, NKBA, AMDEA UK and the Unified Water Label, as well as a host of leading manufacturers.

Joe Simpson is a renowned tile expert whose writing is featured in publications around the world. His website, Diary of a Tile Addict, offers valuable insight into all things tile-related.

Register for your free ticket to InstallerSHOW 2024 here.

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