Inkjet technology has been revolutionizing production processes in many industrial segments for a decade now. No other industry has adapted to digital printing methods as rapidly and smoothly as ceramic tiles decoration. As an listed US printer manufacturer took over the Spanish ceramic printing specialist Cretaprint in 2011, analysts and IT market researchers rubbed their eyes in amazement, because digital decorations was supposed to be the next huge trend and an enormous market for growth for digital printing technology.
Experts estimate, that 35 % of tiles will be digitally decorated within the next 3-5 years. In comparison: even though inkjet technology was also introduced to the textile industry between 2000-2002, the market share of digitalization there has only reached 2 %. For tile manufacturers in China, Brazil, Europe and India the advantages towards analog printing processes are so significant, that the increasing demand for inkjet technology has led to rapid marketability of digital printing systems.
The advantages of digital technology for tile manufacturers can be expressed in terms of time, money, quality and reliability with the return of investment being achieved in record time by many. The South African Ceramics Industries Ltd for example has digitally produced close to 4 million square meters of tiles on a Gamma 75 HD in the last 12 months alone.
In terms of performance, the digital systems leave nothing to be desired and the photo-realistic image resolution and the flexibility to quickly react to requests and adapt to trends has changed the complete industry. The design-to-print principle allows for production to start within minutes, enables almost unlimited variations, highest printing quality, saves material and costs, reduces storage risks and is less damaging on the environment. Above all though, it opens up new possibilities in the markets for operators and provides access to global competition.
The digital printing technology and its versatility has helped to change the role of tiles from a functional wall-cover or flooring to a projection screen. Today, tiles function equally as interior design objects, as well as presentation and marketing mediums. At the same time, the range and possibilities of application are constantly expanding. The designs together with artful surface structures and -effects are moving into focus and are becoming unique selling points for the manufacturers. Be it reproductions of natural stone, wood, photographs or paintings, the possibilities of the inkjet technology are virtually limitless.
The driving force behind this development are not least, the ink producers. Take Torrecid, Ferro, Esmalglass-Itaca, Smalticeram or Colorobbia, they all function as service providers, who besides supplying ink, offer design concepts and advance the development within the market. Next to conventional CMYK configurations, the designs can include special colors such as brown, white, black or metallic special effect inks, to achieve an authentic reproduction of e. g. marble or shading and rich colors.
But even digital ink costs money and impressive designs come at a price. Add to this the reservations concerning full-surface colors and ink application. Here the going opinion still sees the traditional process as superior to the inkjet technology. But opinion trails the latest developments. The introduction of print head technology with drop-on-demand and electronically controlled, variable droplet size enables precise ink application down to the picoliter across the complete printing surface – including transparency of costs.
Inkjet specialists like Durst offer these innovations on a modular basis, so the operator himself can decide, when and in which quantity inkjet technology is utilized and expanded. All these aspects contribute to the continued digitalization in the segment of ceramic tiles. It is not merely a technological revolution, but an evolution of the complete industry and of a global market. In the near future, further innovations will follow. After the digital decoration and then the surface structures, the functionality of tiles will be the next aspect in focus. This actually refers to the ´intelligent` tile, which might change its color when wet to replace the ´Caution! Wet Floor!` signs- this is just food for thought, to illustrate how tomorrow´s variable concepts incorporate digital decoration, structure and function.