By Olivia Cahoon
Part 1 of 2
Manufacturers print on ceramics and glass that is eventually used in buildings, monuments, and other structures. These projects require large pieces of heavy material to run through digital print devices. Printer manufacturers and ink vendors offer equipment and consumables ideal for glass and ceramic applications.
Digital print technology allows for the simplification of high-quality ceramic and glass decorating. Ceramic tile manufacturing is a heavy industrial process but with digital production, preparation and setup tasks required in an analog decorating process are eliminated.
“Traditionally, drum circumference set the pattern repeat length, but with digital printing, pattern length is limited only by the memory of the PC or printhead drive electronics, which means that more realistic natural patterns and finishes are achievable and there is greater flexibility in design and creative potential,” says Gerard Winn, senior product manager, Xaar.
The digital process gives users more variability for changing designs while streamlining production. “Once high-quality graphics became easier to produce, our customers discovered they could open new revenue and profit opportunities,” says Jose Luis Ramon Moreno, VP/GM, EFI Industrial Printing. Tile manufacturers benefit from simpler methods to store digital inks while digital systems don’t require as much ink mixing and waste.
Digital technologies also create a faster setup time by eliminating roller sleeves and physical changeover between images. Winn says that with setup handled by print control software, production downtime and waste are reduced, making it simpler to print short runs including single tiles. He adds, “faster setup, instant pattern switchover, and improved color management means there is no need for long print runs or to hold extensive stocks of finished and partially finished goods—saving on storage costs.”
Yuval Nahum, head of marketing, Dip-Tech, a Ferro Company, believes digital technologies offer UV durability in outdoor conditions and supreme adhesion with chemical and scratch resistance. Ceramic inks can be laminated, bent, and double glazed. “Opaqueness or transparency, light transmission, and see through or privacy can be controlled,” he explains. Large scale projects can also be divided for different glass panels.
According to Winn, inkjet printing also produces high-quality finishes, reduces tile breakage, allows printing on textured tiles, and gives manufacturers a wide ink choice.
The Industrial Segment
The introduction of inkjet in the industrial segment of ceramic and glass printing cut production costs, reduced waste, and improved responsiveness to design changes and customer demands.
Amadeo Capuz, commercial technician, KERAjet, believes inkjet created a deep revolution and as a result, only companies that switched to digital decoration survived and those reluctant to join inkjet have or will perish. “Reduction in manufacturing and operational expenses and design improvements virtually wiped out those companies that did not invested in digital,” he adds.
According to Moreno, ceramic tile is one of the best success rate case studies in the transition from analog to digital printing. “A significant segment of the market is now digital and many new tile production lines are developed with digital decoration in mind as opposed to transitional screenprint methods,” he says.
In fact, Moreno believes the ceramic industry is the most digital transformed example in the world. He says 70 to 75 percent of ceramic tiles are printed and more than 70 percent of those printed are digital.
Dedicated to Design
As the transition to inkjet technology is underway for ceramic and glass manufacturers in the industrial segment, its important to discuss if a dedicated printer or ink set is the best scenario for printing to ceramics or glass.
Winn believes digital inkjet is now the must-have technology for ceramic tile manufacturers. “It is no longer a case of offering digital tiles as an optional extra, digital capability is expected,” he shares.
Inkjet produces higher quality tiles that offer more realistic reproductions of marble and other natural materials cost effectively. Instead of competing on price, tile manufacturers now compete on creativity and innovation. “The combination of benefits such as life-like designs and improved tile quality with reduced costs give digitally equipped ceramic tile manufacturers a huge advantage over rivals still using traditional methods,” admits Winn.
Nahum points out that industries that traditionally use ceramic inks and multiple colors, like appliance glass, are moving toward digital ceramic printing to simplify the process and reduce costs.
Brazil, China, and India have a large installed base of traditional ceramic tile production lines and according to Winn, show rapid conversion to digital inkjet decoration. “As worldwide production of ceramic tiles grows, it creates huge opportunities for suppliers of digital inkjet ceramic tile printers and inks,” he says.
Moreno believes that dedicated printers and ink sets are the best scenario for printing to ceramics and glass because digital tile manufacturing occurs inline with the manufacturing process where the tiles are fired. “It is possible to decorate tiles post-glazing on a wide format flatbed UV-cured printer, which is an option for some decorative applications, but perhaps not as useful a process for higher volume industrial production,” he explains.
However, an inline manufacturing process also brings challenges. Moreno warns that like analog decoration, the inline manufacturing process for digital ceramic tile decoration sets a barrier for printing businesses that want to offer tile decoration without manufacturing the tiles.
While digital decoration ends the classic rigidities and limitations in the manufacturing process, Capuz says that any disadvantage to inkjet technology for ceramic and glass printing is the need for a change once this technology is introduced. He offers, “not joining it will definitely mean the extinction of un-adapted corporations for sure.”
Ceramics and Glass
According to Winn, the majority of ceramic tile manufacturers in major tile producing countries already converted to digital inkjet printing. “We have now seen the change from traditional to digital ceramic tile decoration gather momentum in the rest of the world,” he adds. As the production of ceramic and glass grows, so does the opportunities for digital ceramic printer and ink suppliers.
Part two of this series provides a roundup of available printers and printheads used in the industrial space for ceramic and glass printing.
Oct2017, Industrial Print Magazine