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.
Adapting to Ceramics
Although the conversion to digital printing might have been slower than originally expected, especially with the added weight of the economic downturn, acceptance was remarkably fast once inkjet was able to prove itself. Certainly, for engine manufacturers and system integrators, it was a challenge to match all the requirements demanded by the ceramic segment without compromising quality, durability, and unit price. Specific criteria included the right type of colorant and its ability to maintain fidelity during the firing and glazing process. Additionally, the substrate surface could be irregular and even dusty, and this meant that the reliability of printhead nozzles was vital. In early machines, jetting problems were common as residue buildup and clogging necessitated frequent cleaning and maintenance procedures. Similarly, the obvious appeal of single-pass technology was, at the start, largely impractical because of performance compromises.
The key breakthrough lay in printhead development to enable even jetting regardless of surface condition or undesirable variances that occurred during the manufacture of the ceramic product. From a financial point of view, mass production of the base item did not lend itself to clean-room conditions and, thus, a solution had to be found that would not compromise digital’s advantages given the practical obstacles of the application. Ink viscosity also played a vital role; recirculation within the printheads proved essential to preventing nozzle blocking through excess sedimentation.
As a result, successful ceramic printers adopted the most suitable components that were developed by a variety of manufacturers who realized the importance of correct integration. Likewise, producers of ceramic inks finally tuned their chemistries to accommodate the specific requirements of printheads, nozzle performance, and substrate tolerances. The design of the print engine itself also needed to take into account the handling of relatively fragile materials, both at the in-feed and takeoff stations. Added into this equation was the need for minimal downtime during maintenance schedules combined with the ability for high-speed quality throughput.
As ceramic materials become thinner and, in many cases, larger thanks to their ability to be printed using a non-contact technique, so the demand for optimizing deposition has increased in complexity. The need to minimize breakage has also encouraged greater creativity in design and texture, which, in turn, has added aesthetic value, often turning a relatively dull and functional item into one that generates much higher margins for printing companies and their sales channels.
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