Most industrial applications today remain the realm of analog printing processes, particularly screen printing, but inkjet is rapidly gaining momentum.
By Ron Gilboa
In the past decade, digital printing of ceramic tiles has evolved from a novelty application to an established high-volume decoration process that continues to gain worldwide acceptance. Currently, over 6 billion square meters of ceramic tiles are printed annually by inkjet printers, with the installed base of equipment representing $1 billion of machine sales. Since 2010, the number of vendors offering ceramic inkjet printers has grown, and sales of digital equipment now exceed those of traditional analog printing lines. Experts in the ceramic industry estimate that 60-70% of tiles will be digitally decorated within the next three to five years.
Endless patterns are available now to emulate natural and manmade designs. Imaging is done directly onto raw tiles and then finished in traditional high-temperature kilns, a process that dramatically changes the color and appearance of the printed inks. This is a challenging production environment for any printing process, but inkjet’s results are nothing short of astonishing.
Beyond providing excellent reproduction quality, digital printing has brought a change in the value-chain dynamics of the tile industry, opening new opportunities for producers who employ digital decoration. Manufacturers can plan for shorter product lifecycles in addition to offering more custom options and greater product differentiation.
Two printhead manufacturers, Xaar and Fuji Dimatix, spearheaded this transformation by developing heads that were capable of jetting the aggressive inks used in ceramic printing. After several years of work by these firms to commercialize the technology, printer OEMs in Europe and Asia took the lead in developing systems designed for use in tile production facilities. In Europe, the C3 printer from Cretaprint (purchased in 2012 by EFI) is capable of printing 50-150 linear ft/min and uses an EFI front end designed specifically for ceramic printing. With the largest share of worldwide tile production done in China, a range of Asian OEMs are vying for market share. One company that exemplifies the rapidly growing machine market there is Teckwin, which has claimed that sales of their ceramic-tile printers have doubled each year since entering the field in 2010.
Did you enjoy this article? Click here to subscribe to the magazine.