Decorating Ceramics / Whitewares

Digital Decoration: The Silent (R)Evolution

Digital systems provide photo-realistic image resolution and the flexibility to adapt quickly to requests and trends.

March 1, 2013

For the past decade, inkjet technology has been revolutionizing production processes in many industrial segments. No other industry has adapted to digital printing methods as rapidly and smoothly as ceramic tile decoration. When the listed printer manufacturer EFI took over the Spanish ceramic printing specialist Cretaprint in 2011, analysts and IT market researchers rubbed their eyes in amazement—digital decoration 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 three to five years. In comparison, even though inkjet technology was also introduced to the textile industry between 2000 and 2002, the market share of digitalization there has only reached 2%. For tile manufacturers in China, Brazil, Europe and India, the advantages of digital 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 on investment being achieved in record time by many. The South African Ceramics Industries Ltd., for example, has produced close to 4 million m2 of tile on a digital system* in the last 12 months alone. In terms of performance, digital systems provide photo-realistic image resolution and the flexibility to adapt quickly to requests and trends.

Digital Advantages

The design-to-print principle allows for production to start within minutes, enables almost unlimited variations, ensures the highest printing quality, saves material and costs, reduces storage risks, and is less damaging to the environment. Above all, it opens up new market possibilities for manufacturers and decorators, and provides access to global competition.

The versatility of digital printing technology has helped change the role of tile 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 applications are constantly expanding. The designs, together with artful surface structures and effects, are moving into focus and becoming unique selling points for manufacturers. Whether reproductions of natural stone, wood, photographs or paintings, the possibilities of the inkjet technology are virtually limitless. In addition to conventional CMYK configurations, designs can include special colors such as brown, white, black or metallic special effect inks to achieve an authentic reproduction (e.g., marble), or shading and rich colors.

Ink producers are the essential driving force behind this development. Torrecid, Ferro, Esmalglass-Itaca, Smalticeram and Colorobbia all function as service providers that, in addition to supplying ink, offer design concepts and advance the development within the market.

Continued Development

Even digital ink costs money, however, and impressive designs come at a price. Add to this concern the reservations regarding full-surface colors and ink application. Here, the going opinion still sees the traditional process as superior to inkjet technology. But opinion trails the latest developments.

The introduction of new printhead technology with drop-on-demand and electronically controlled, variable droplet size enables precise ink application down to the picoliter across the complete printing surface, thereby improving cost transparency. Inkjet specialists offer these innovations on a modular basis, so the operator can decide when and in what quantity inkjet technology is used and expanded.

All these aspects contribute to the continued digitalization in the segment of ceramic tile. It is not merely a technological revolution, but an evolution of the complete industry and of a global market. In the near future, innovations will continue to emerge. After digital decoration and surface structures, developers will likely focus on the functionality of tile. For example, an “intelligent” tile might change its color when wet to replace “Caution! Wet Floor!” signs. Tomorrow’s variable concepts will incorporate digital decoration, structure and function. 

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