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.
Digital printing, as we are well aware in the graphics and display sectors, can be finely tuned to match precision colors and, while the shades traditionally used in tile production were not necessarily based on a CMYK palette, the need for effective workflow and color management has always been high. Using analog methods, matching between different batches of product has been unlikely, if not impossible. This, in turn, encouraged manufacturers to err on the side of caution and overproduce lines with the intention of being able to replace or add pieces to an existing installation without a noticeable color shift.
Despite the obvious benefits available to producers of ceramic products, this segment was relatively slow to commercialize. Although inkjet printing was well established within other areas, and its potential was under development for functional applications, early digital engines designed for this sector were not successful. The combination of components needed for manufacturing tiles and related items was not immediately obvious; key elements required absolute compatibility that covered the idiosyncrasies of working with the materials and finishes that are specific to this area.
Added to this, a new workflow needed to be developed that moved from a traditional design and prepress configuration to one driven by a digital front end. Being able to emulate typical ceramic styles involved a transition to a color model that wasn’t always familiar to conventional tile manufacturers. Ironically, the ability to match colors with software has not only enabled specialists to maintain their existing shades for accurate onward reference and production, but now also enables additional creativity to be integrated into print runs. Thus, in many ways, today’s tiles emulate those from the centuries in which each unit was different, either because it was hand-painted or decorated using a basic stencil.
By 2009, digital ceramics production was finally confirmed as being a truly viable, cost-effective, and workable proposition. During the previous two years, the ceramics industry was starting to realize that the rapidly changing market dynamic would make it essential to adopt shorter runs, reduced lead times, and just-in-time production to answer the growing reluctance of wholesalers and retailers to maintain aged stock levels. Additionally, ceramic production presents a golden opportunity for back-shoring. This type of model is already successful in the textile printing industry, and the same principles apply when low volumes and fast desktop-to-finished products are required to meet today’s market demand.
Did you enjoy this article? Click here to subscribe to the magazine.