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.
The composition of a screen-printed tile was based on a relatively thick and heavy base product that could accept the stress and pressure applied during its production processes. It also needed to be able to handle flatbed or rotary screen printing that could include several colors followed by glazing with a liquid coating and firing in a high-temperature kiln. This combination of techniques was subject to a variety of disadvantages including limited design options and restricted pattern variation, the time needed to change a job, the color consistency testing needed to make sure that the fired product matched the shades required at the outset, and accountability for post-production breakage.
With so many criteria restricting the potential creativity in ceramics production, it was hardly surprising that it swiftly became a strong contender for digital printing around the globe. Although China remains the primary producer, European countries such as Italy and Spain were gaining a strong reputation for generating more unusual and appealing designs. Although production costs were higher, the end results became increasingly popular throughout commercial and domestic market sectors. (It is worth noting that, through more localized manufacture, tidier logistics and faster deliveries also benefited the supply chain and end purchasers.)
In addition to shorter setup times, faster prepress, and the ability to generate lower volumes, there was also the obvious benefit of customization and variable-data printing. None of these features were available using traditional analog methods and, for these reasons alone, digital production was an inevitable choice for ceramics. Another advantage quickly became apparent. Because inkjet is a truly non-contact technique, the volatility and fragility of ceramic materials became easier to overcome. Lack of pressure on the substrate meant that thinner media could be printed than with screen. This not only lowered the unit cost, but also increased productivity as greater numbers of finished tiles could be shipped in a single container. The versatility of final applications was also enhanced with the availability of a finer and more sophisticated product.
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