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.
Manufacturers across the different sectors of digital printing contributed to the metamorphosis in ceramic production, enabling smaller countries to join in the established success of China by adding new technology. Given Spain’s traditional associations with this market, it is fitting that Spanish-based companies like Kerajet and EFI Cretaprint are extending tradition by ensuring inkjet capabilities are brought within the remit of manufacture. Another early entrant into the digital market was Durst, with contributions that have added to the versatility now available to established and new producers in this segment.
But the breakthrough came because printer manufacturers, ink developers, and printhead specialists worked together and pooled their expertise. They found a way to jet aggressive materials in a hostile production environment onto imperfect substrates using a unique, purpose-built workflow. As we contemplate screen’s future in industrial printing, tiles offer an intriguing model for how similar challenges may be overcome in other markets.
Logic and Fashion
In summary, conditions were ripe for digital printing in the ceramics area to gather momentum quickly. As a result, nearly 60 percent of today’s tiles are printed using inkjet engines and, even though China still produces the majority of them, it is notable that digital processes are appealing worldwide. Countries such as Brazil and India – formerly responsible for a large quantity of analog production – are also seeing significant conversion to digital alternatives. Europe, too, is attracting the manufacture of ceramics with clean processes complemented by reduced waste and the requirement for low stockholding, removing many of the space and logistical issues previously associated with this market.
Inkjet’s propensity to emulate grain, textures, and finishes has also been hugely beneficial, together with high-resolution images and the ability for every tile to contain a design variation. One of the cogent advantages where digital has no rival is the fact that, unlike graphics and most textiles, finished products are juxtaposed to form the finished application. Unusually, this is a segment where color consistency and production accuracy are linked with variable-data printing, thus requiring the best of all worlds so that repeatability can sit alongside customization. Ceramic production is also driven by trends in the same way as fashion and interior décor, and must be able to accommodate design changes and preferences within a short time period. Faced with so many economic, logistical, and design challenges, it is easy to see why this particular area of decorative industrial printing has provided a relatively straightforward and practical example of how a traditional analog production process can gain by moving to digital technology.
For more from our "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" special issue:
Screen Printing: A Technology at a Crossroads, Steve Duccilli
Why Industrial Applications Hold Tremendous Promise for Screen Printing, Mike Young
Screen Printing: King of Textiles, Charlie Taublieb
The Future of Functional Printing, Wim Zoomer
A Partial List of Industrial Applications for Screen Printing, Wim Zoomer
The Limitations of Screen Printing in the Graphic Arts, Tamas S. Frecska
Why Web-to-Print Software Matters for All Printing Businesses, Eileen Fritsch
A Sampling of Web-to-Print Software, Eileen Fritsch
Threats to Screen Printing, Inside and Out, Mark Coudray
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