Cost-Effective Customization

August 1, 2009
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The demand for custom ceramic products is being reignited by companies that have embraced digital decorating technology.





Flexibility is Key

Many U.S. manufacturers are in a struggle for survival against cheap Asian imports. For companies that rely on “make-to-inventory” business models, this battle has no end in sight. The most common response is to move production to low-cost manufacturing countries in an effort to compete more effectively, but the steady stream of U.S. business casualties continues unabated.

The dominant Asian business model relies on the inexpensive mass-production of commodity products. If U.S. manufacturers mass-produce products that can be mass-produced in Asia, it is likely that they will face never-ending price and margin erosions.

On the other hand, producing uniquely personal and customized products is contrary to the dominant Asian business model, which gives local producers the advantage. One option is for U.S. manufacturers to acquire commodity products from offshore companies and then customize those products with digital ceramic printing.

For example, the North American porcelain memorial portrait industry has been wholly untouched by cheap Asian imports. While offshore suppliers have taken a large share of the granite sold into the funeral industry, virtually no Asian suppliers of significance currently produce porcelain memorial portraits, even though typical margins run 1000% and up. Instead, the blank porcelain is made offshore, while the customization-and the capture of the high margin that goes with it-is done in North America.

Made-to-order, personalized, customer-specific products are most effectively produced close to the point of sale. Language and time zone disparities, along with geography, create hurdles to offshore producers. In addition, consumers who want (and are willing to pay for) personalized products also expect the personal service that goes with it. This creates an advantage for local companies when they can quickly create proofs and prototypes to address the design iterations that are often necessary during the customization process.

Technology Advancements

In just the last year, a number of significant advancements have extended the capability and usefulness of digital ceramic printing. Among these advancements is a new class of state-of-the-art printers that eliminate the traditional reliance of digital ceramic printing on used, obsolete printer technology. The new printers are reliable, easy to use and produce photographic-quality decorations with new fine-particle-size ceramic toner formulations.

With computer-to-print simplicity and low cost, ceramic decorations can be produced at up to a 1200 by 1200 dpi print resolution. The new printers can decorate full-bleed 12 x 12 in. tiles and can print continuous images up to 45 in. long in “banner” print mode. In addition, some systems are price-competitive with sublimation systems while avoiding the product deficiencies of sublimation decorations.

A glass toner system is now commercially available, as is a new low-cost desktop ceramic printer. In addition, digital ceramic printing has the smallest environmental footprint of any ceramic decorating technology, and it uses less energy. The process uses dry print chemistry that eliminates all organic solvent and other liquid waste streams generated by many other ceramic decorating processes. Finally, enhanced relationships with the printer OEMs make on-site service available from printer manufacturers.

Digital Revolution

The digital ceramic revolution is in full swing and is opening a host of new market opportunities for companies that have adopted its use. It is a potent weapon in creating higher “value-add” products in markets where there is little differentiation-other than price-evident to the customer.

For additional information regarding customizable ceramic decorating, contact the author at (303) 278-8868 or e-mail rmanwiller@enduringimages.com.

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