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Digital Ceramic Printing: A Logical Success

(December/January 2016) posted on Thu Feb 04, 2016

Why transitioning to digital technology was a natural evolution for the ceramic tile decoration industry – and why this transition may provide a future model for other industrial applications.

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By Sophie Matthews-Paul

Our special "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" issue brings industry experts together to consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to screen printing. Our "Threats" section features expert Matthews-Paul, who examines the ceramic tile printing industry's rapid shift to digital technologies.

Where functional and industrial printing cross into decorative applications, many examples fit neatly into today’s remit for digital technology. One of the most challenging – yet successful – of these is the realm of ceramics. Functional printing is increasingly turning to inkjet’s capabilities, with some end products proving to be particularly effective, such as those where market trends and economic factors demand lower volumes, greater versatility, and better environmental practices that include lower levels of waste.

Traditions in Ceramic Printing
Today’s ceramic production represents something of a metamorphosis, returning to its roots of individuality away from mass manufacture and decoration of identical items. Aesthetically, the physical process of marking tiles has been evidenced in the context of art since 4000 BC; early examples come from Egypt and became associated with stylized products that ultimately relied on bulk production as new markets developed. Both decorative and functional, their tough glaze made them suitable for building products, sanitary ware, and wallcoverings, which were easy to keep clean and maintain.

Tiles are produced from clay minerals to which chemicals are added to enable shaping. Then, they are processed so that the raw materials can be tumbled and ground before being milled and pressed into the required size and thickness. But ceramics printing extends into areas that have traditionally required specialty inks and high-temperature firing processes to provide a durable finish onto a series of products, including crockery, where breakage must be avoided.

Until recently, the ceramics printing industry had strong roots in analog production technologies that looked unlikely to change with the advent of newer decoration methods. Tiles were generally unsophisticated, thanks to techniques that produced fairly basic results but fulfilled the requirement for high volumes at low costs. The key criteria were long runs and minimal prices; these offset time-consuming and expensive setup and preparation that were both essential to maintaining competitiveness across manufacturers.


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