With the rapidly increasing ability to mimic a vast range of natural materials, advanced digital-printing techniques are revolutionising ceramic tiles


They’re on your kitchen floor and your bathroom walls, adorning the interior of Istanbul’s magnificent Topkapi Palace and the roof of the famous Sydney Opera House. Ceramic tiles are durable and decorative; they have been around (and will stay around) as a modern building material for as long as anyone can remember – and they’re as popular as ever.

‘Generic ceramic tiles – which you can break down into ceramics, porcelains and so on – make up about 90% of our business,’ says Stuart Berry, director at LimeGreen Sourcing Solutions. What’s behind that enduring popularity? ‘It’s a combination of things,’ says Berry. ‘Cost obviously comes into it’ – ceramic tiles are a relatively affordable option – ‘but durability is a big factor as well. Generally ceramic or porcelain tiles are highly durable and can withstand higher degrees of foot traffic.’

As a sustainable flooring material, ceramic tiling takes some beating. It reduces the need for indoor cooling; contains fewer VOCs than laminate flooring; and keeps air cleaner by collecting less dirt and pollen than carpeting (which is almost impossible to recycle).

Now, a new wave of printing technologies is also enabling ceramic tiles to serve as a near-identical substitute for non-sustainable materials such as wood and marble. ‘The printing technology on ceramic tiles has improved drastically over the past five to eight years, especially with regard to microprinting on the tile surface,’ he says. ‘The patterns and designs of the tiles have gone from being semi-realistic to hyper-realistic. Ten years ago, a wood-look print on a ceramic tile would look sort of like wood. Now it looks so real that you have to touch the tile to know that it’s not wood.’

Berry points out that this is not a new development. ‘It’s just that the technology is getting better all the time,’ he says. ‘And some factories now have the ability to print better patterns.’ He’s right: new printing technologies and digitally applied 3D effects mean that ceramic tile surfaces can now replicate the look and feel – right down to the textures – of materials such as wood, stone, steel, concrete and even textiles.

The technology has allowed contemporary designers to explore one of the more surprising interior design trends: hybrid ‘fusion’ looks that would never be found in nature – two types of stone, say, or wood and stone, or even concrete and linen – but which are now possible with a sophisticated printer and a designer’s imagination.

From a sustainability point of view, there’s real value in reproducing the look of natural materials that are either unsustainable or in short supply. ‘In the past you would have quarries of marble from places like Greece and Turkey, but those have been completely decimated because of the demand,’ says Berry. ‘These days those materials are incredibly expensive and hard to come by, but the ceramic industry is using hyper-realistic printing to mimic those beautiful marbles almost exactly – both in the design and the surface texture. In factories around the world you can now find incredibly realistic copies of natural materials. I think that’s why the ceramic industry has been so successful of late: it’s started to cannibalise on the natural materials.’

This is true across the industry, and across the world. ‘We are constantly evaluating our technology, always looking for new ways to improve our product offerings,’ Gianni Mattioli, executive VP of product and marketing at Texas-based ceramic tiling company Dal-Tile told Floor Covering News. ‘Our digital-printing techniques allow us to create tile that is so realistic, most customers cannot discern between what is tile and what is the natural surface we are imitating. With the increased demand for new shapes and sizes, we are implementing new technology that allows us to create everything from beautiful mosaics in a variety of shapes to large-format porcelain slabs.’

New York-based designer Lee Wright told the same industry publication that ‘the products now have the appearance of natural materials. As a designer, this is a game changer’. Wright added that natural-looking tiles – such as those woods and stones – are becoming more and more popular because ‘people associate natural materials with being more sustainable’.

Tile manufacturers are also taking advantage of greener printing solutions, many of which were showcased at the Cevisama trade show, held in Spain in February 2020. The EFI Cretaprint Hybrid, presented by Electronics For Imaging, was awarded the prestigious 2020 Alfa de Oro award from the Sociedad Española de Cerámica y Vidrio, in recognition of its technological and artistic creativity.

The digital inkjet-printer ecosystem allows manufacturers to work with both eco-solvent and aqueous inks using the same device, putting them on course towards using greener aqueous inks. This, the company claims, would help them to eliminate more than 90% of the VOC emissions (and 73% of the average carbon emissions) that occur with eco-solvent ceramic inkjet inks.

‘We are addressing our customers’ key concerns for immediately adding eco-friendly processes – something that will eventually become standard for an industry looking to reduce its environmental footprint,’ according to José Luis Ramón Moreno, EFI’s VP and GM of industrial printing. ‘We have already had several successful EFI Cretaprint Hybrid implementations, and our users are able to achieve the same level of print quality and reliability that they have had previously, with improved sustainability.’

Another significant industry development is the ability to print on very large tiles. ‘One of the formats you can use now is 280 cm by 120 cm,’ says Berry. ‘That’s a huge slab. It means that you could take a single tile and put it on an entire bathroom wall, for example, and it would have a beautiful, seamless feel with no breaks or grout joints. It really looks like a natural marble slab.’

Timber tiles (or, more to the point, ceramic tiles that look exactly like timber) are now up to 1.8m long, which is close to the dimensions of real, natural oak. These larger and longer formats make it possible for the ceramic market to compete for market share with marble, natural wood and luxury vinyl tiles. It’s also moving ceramic tiles from walls and floors to countertops and backsplashes, and into bedrooms, boardrooms and parts of the home or office building that traditionally haven’t seen tiles before.

The exact placement or application will, of course, depend on practicalities and aesthetics. ‘A wood-look ceramic, for instance, will work in some environments but not in others,’ says Berry. ‘A restaurant might need a durable floor in a high-traffic area, but for the sake of acoustics in an office boardroom you might want the less durable, softer finish of real wood. They both have a place.’

Yet, with all those technical advances, there isn’t much ceramic-tile designers and manufacturers can’t do these days. Combine that with the affordability, durability, versatility and longevity of ceramics, and it’s easy to see why the market is growing so rapidly. A Research and Markets Ceramic Tiles Market Size, Share and Trends Analysis report predicts that the global market size will growth at a CAGR of 7.7% from 2019 to 2025, when it will reach $94.61 billion. Granted, the report was published in June 2019, before COVID-19 nonsensed all predictive models, but the underlying point remains true.

‘Ceramic tiles are projected to play an important role in green construction over the forecast period,’ the report notes. ‘Digital technology has highly affected the market over the past few years. Application in digital inkjet-printing technology for ceramic tiles has made it possible to develop tiles with a variety of designs and appearances. Inkjet technology allows high-quality and high-speed printing with speed of around 50m per minute. The decoration can be applied till the edges of the tile, thus allowing perfection in printing. This technology allows manufacturers flexibility and innovation in designing ceramic tiles.’

Crucially, that sense of sustainability is also creeping into the manufacturing process. ‘When it comes to sourcing, certain factories use a high degree of recycled material,’ says Berry – and indeed, some manufacturers now produce tiles that contain 50% to 100% in-house factory waste (or post-industrial waste) that would otherwise have gone to landfill. Some, meanwhile, are using recycled water content, while others are changing their manufacturing processes.

In SA, Ceramic Industries is an example of a company that, through careful analysis and experimentation, has reformulated the composition of its clay and glazes to lower their melting point. As Building and Décor magazine notes, this allows their kilns to run at lower temperatures, making products with the same strength and quality, but with reduced energy consumption. ‘One of our primary goals at Ceramic Industries is to reduce factory energy consumption by 20% to 30%,’ it quotes CEO Lance Foxcroft as saying. ‘We want customers to feel that when they are choosing a Ceramic Industries product, they’re comfortable not only with its design and quality, but also with its impact on the environment.’

That sentiment is spreading across the ceramic-tile industry, leading to materials that are greener and more sustainable all the way through their life cycle – from how they’re made to where they’re ultimately placed.

By Mark van Dijk
Images: Gallo/Getty Images

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