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Walk the Line
In 1996, I remember giving a tour of Florida Tile’s ultra-modern tile decorating line. I was asked how many pieces of a new product would go by before the pattern repeated. Proudly, I told them that this series had five distinct patterns and, as long as each piece was turned, the repeat would be barely noticeable.
95% of all tile is designed to look like stone, so the name of the game is random. The less one piece looks like another, the better. Innovation in decorating tile has all revolved around reducing the number of times a certain pattern repeats.
After a tile is pressed, it goes down a long decorating line. In modern tile factories, these can be as long as a football field and hold a variety of decorating steps. Typically, the tile is glazed and then decorated. The decorations are pigments that are applied to the top of the ink in certain patterns. When they are fired, they melt together to look like the veins of marble, for instance, or the pits in a piece of travertine. How the decoration is applied determines how random the installed pieces will be.
In the 1980s, each piece of tile would go under one or more screen print machines (a lot like how T-shirts are decorated), and they would look more or less the same. In the 1990s, rotary printing machines became popular. These machines use a silicone drum with laser etched pits that pick up the decorative “ink” and then deposit it on the tile. The more of these pits that can be crammed into a square inch, the higher the resolution of the print. The 2000s were spent putting in more of these printers with bigger and bigger drums and higher resolution engraving.
The tile world of 2010 is just starting to see the newest tile decorating innovation taking root. The digital printer is quickly revolutionizing tile making. Essentially a high-speed laser-jet printer that uses ceramic ink, the digital printer can be programmed so that each piece is essentially unique. The resolution of the print is also many times greater than the best that a rotary printer can produce. The result is lifelike printing that is almost impossible to tell from the “real thing.”
While this new technology isn’t cheap, the results are so impressive that it is almost assuredly the future of ceramic tile decorating. Why use real slate that tends to flake and deteriorate when you can use a tile that is virtually indistinguishable and will last forever? Why risk the holes in your travertine floor breaking down over time when a porcelain version is available that never needs sealing? If I had been able to take the tour group from 1996 through today’s factory, it would truly have seemed like science fiction.