By Olivia Cahoon
Digital ceramic printing offers high-quality output and a noncontact solution for decorating ceramics while reducing tile breakage. Faster setup, improved color management, reduced make ready, and minimization of repeat patterns drives ceramic manufacturers toward digital technology. Small price differences between digital and traditional inks make it a viable option for manufacturers to consider. This article looks at ceramic printing and its role in the digital market.
Digital ceramic printing began in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2007 that it became popular. Since then the technology has improved to compete with traditional printing methods and offer bold solutions.
David Lindsay, public relations manager, EFI, says the ceramic decoration market adopts digital for similar reasons as why other traditional printing markets adopt digital. “It can provide greater versatility and less waste compared with analog methods.” For example, the EFI Cretaprint technology provides reduced ink usage and high-end color capabilities.
Digital ceramic presses allow versatility and produce batches with individual unique tile pieces. Design software reduces the possibility of repeat patterns and eliminates the need to sort tiles for repeat prevention while allowing the product to be packed sooner.
According to Gerard Winn, senior product manager, Xaar, digital adoption is driven by the ability to produce short run lengths more economically due to the reduction in waste and set up time. Digital ceramic presses create new tile designs and mix colors, glazes, and effects to create new styles. “Digital technology is now very well established in the ceramics printing industry, with over 90 percent of the addressable market in most countries already converted,” adds Winn.
Tile manufacturers looking to improve decoration operations, as opposed to print companies seeking new markets, adopt digital ceramic presses. “Industrial-scale inkjet tile decoration occurs as an integrated part of the complete manufacturing process—digital inkjet industrial tile decoration systems are designed to work in line with kilns used in tile manufacturing,” explains Lindsay.
Acquired by Sensient Imaging Technologies in 2015, Xennia was a pioneer for ceramic productions. Today, Sensient does not retail inks or technology but has experience in the ceramics industry. Simon Daplyn, product manager, Sensient, believes digitally printing ceramic tiles has significant cost benefits to tile producers. Tailored short-run productions like a ten-tile job cost the same per tile as a 100,000-tile job.
Digital technology also allows design freedom for flexible designs from marble to wood. “There is a growing requirement for bespoke products and personalized images, which was previously extremely expensive,” shares Daplyn.
Digital ceramic presses allow designs to be kept electronically—eliminating the need for engraved screens or rollers in warehouse storage. According to Daplyn, there is no need for large amounts of finish stock because single tiles are printed on demand.
Because digital printing is a noncontact process, the rate of tile breakages is reduced during the printing process. Digital also allows the base tile to be made thinner and lighter to save raw material costs and give a higher quality product.
Considerations for Digital Ceramics
Despite the advantages of digital ceramic printing, the technology has not taken full control of the ceramic market.
Winn considers there to be few factors hindering digital’s adoption of ceramic printing. These factors include un-addressable ceramic production lines, producing single non-patterned lines, and creating simple designs where there is little advantage in switching to digital.
Despite digital printing being known for color variation and vibrancy, the technology is limited in ceramic printing due to the availability of pigments that withstand high firing temperatures. However, Daplyn says digital printing lines make up for this by running as fast as 50 meters per minute (m/min) and are done at effectively the same cost per tile regardless of run length or number of printed tiles per design. “Low-volume production can be very expensive with traditional printing methods,” he continues. Recent developments in printhead technologies allow larger ink volumes to be applied.
“Over 50 percent of tiles are now printed digitally and the installed base is significant,” explains Daplyn. Digital glaze is used to achieve a final base finishing quality that allows ink to be used for decoration and protection. Daplyn warns that digital glaze can be expensive and a wasteful process.
Unlike traditional ceramic printing, digital technology allows ceramic batches to be made in unique patterns. Each piece in every batch is different, as opposed to similar tiles. Winn believes that digital ceramic printing allows new tile designs to be made with colors, glazes, and effects that can’t be achieved by traditional techniques.
“Traditionally, with analog printing, a very high-end range would carry perhaps 20 designs and so when tiling there would always be a repeat tile,” says Daplyn. Digital printing offers reduced repeat patterning that allows for a natural look—enhancing perceived quality. It is also a continuous process with little or no downtime between print jobs to eliminate screen engraving or set up.
A Viable Solution
Digital printers prove themselves to be more than capable of driving industrial production success for ceramic tile decoration. “Digital printing is now a widely preferred option because inkjet can not only successfully duplicate what has been done in the past with analog, it offers many more benefits in terms of versatility,” says Lindsay.
The ceramic printing market features an open ink model. Winn discloses that tile producers can purchase ink from a variety of sources which has driven down prices to the point where cost differences between digital and traditional inks is small compared to the benefits of digital. “We have observed a much faster adoption of digital printing technologies in the ceramics market than other markets,” he adds.
Printheads offer a re-circulation capability to allow the use of inorganic pigments which may have been prohibitive. “Digital printing is now an industrial pro
cess which is reliable, cost effective, and provides significant benefits over conventional print methods,” says Daplyn. Printhead technologies with large and variable drop sizes allow for single-pass production printing at industrial speeds.
While digital seems viable for ceramic printing, there is also a matter of whether digital ceramic presses are suited for industrial applications. Daplyn explains that it is possible due to the emergence of print manufacturers from the ceramics market into other applications like textiles. He describes printing ceramics as a more forgiving process for image quality compared to other graphic areas where substrates are not porous and a key requirement is drying. Ceramic presses need accuracy for available ink technologies to allow the hardware to be viable for industrial applications.
A Look at Ceramic Presses
Durst’s Gamma XD Series is an eightcolor inkjet ceramic printer with a maximum printing width of 1,404 mm. It is equipped with the Durst High Definition Printhead Technology with dual ink circulation and Adaptive Dot Placement Technology for print uniformity. Its printhead cleaning system ensures high image quality and color similarity. Paired with the Digital Material printhead technology, the Gamma XD Series jets large ink amounts for special effects like luster, glossy, matte, white, metallic, and glue inks. The Gamma XD Series features built-in remote diagnostics functions and a user guide for printhead replacement to reduce potential maintenance downtime.
EFI’s newest ceramic offering is the Cretaprint D4 that features up to 12 print bars. It meets tile decoration demands by allowing users to incorporate a full range of ceramic inks and digital print effects. The Cretaprint C4 was upgraded to include the option of running the new 2001 Xaar printhead, which features 2,000 nozzles per printhead for bold color, high coverage, and special effects. The C4 model is designed for energy savings, ease of use, and lower maintenance costs. It prints a maximum tile width of 745.5 millimeters at 50 meters/minute. The printer has eight printing bars with an automatic nozzle cleaning system to generate fewer permanently missing nozzles and to extend printhead life.
Both Cretaprint printers were featured at industry show, Tecnargilla, in Bologna, Italy. “We also showed the Cretaprint M4-SOL, which is the most popular model of EFI Cretaprint’s SOL series of printers,” says Lindsay. The M4-SOL is designed for producing high-transit porcelain polished tiles. It allows users to jet soluble salt inks and bring rich colors to porcelain tile decorations with lapatto and polished finishes.
The KERAjet K700 and K1400 displays up to 12 printing bars at a speed of 90 m/min. Its active system includes a continuous ink stream to provide a steady printing system. The printer also features an integrated picture processor and multi-printhead technology. The systems handle a maximum width of 700 inches. It’s proofreader system is used for different shades of color in place. The KERAjet K700 and K1400 also offer multi-entrance, relief detector, and printhead units oriented by the client’s desire. KERAjet offers 24/7 technical support, operators technical training, and inhouse electronics manufacturing.
Sky Air-Ship Digital Printing Equipment Co., Ltd displays the FLATMASTER3020 UV flatbed printer that caters to art glass, ceramic decoration, microcrystalline stone, furniture plates, and electrical panels. Its homothermic negative pressure ink supply system maintains ink viscosity and provides low temperature and high-speed printing stability. It prints in eight colors and uses Caldera color management software.
Introduced in 2016, Xaar features the Xaar 1003 series and Xaar 2001+ of print heads. Both series deliver high image quality and productivity. The Xaar 1003 offers one color at 360 dpi and the Xaar 2001+ offers one color at 720 dpi or two colors each at 360 dpi. The Xaar 1003 has eight grey levels and 1,000 optimized geometry nozzles to deliver improved drop placement accuracy. The Xaar 2001+ is available in three drop sizes for fine details on wall tiles, high laydown to cover a range of ceramic designs, and high laydown for special effects. The printhead has 2,000 optimized geometry nozzles to deliver high productivity with a range of oil-based ceramic inks.
Xaar ceramic printheads offer integrated technologies to ensure maximum production uptime in ceramics factories with harsh environments with minimum operator intervention. Xaar TF Technology ink recirculation ensures continuous ink flow directly past the back nozzles to avoid air bubbles and carry away unwanted particles. The XaarGuard nozzle plate provides protection from mechanical impact to minimize production interruptions. Xaar’s Tuned Actuator Manufacturing allows optimization for actuator performance in each printhead. This process provides scalability with a quick set up and achieves consistent print quality across long print bars with multiple printheads. The Xaar 2001+ features new XaarSMART technology that reports ink temperature and printhead status in real time. It allows printer performance to be adjusted and deliver consistent print quality.
Despite competing with analog technology providers, Lindsay believes digital adoption’s success in the ceramic market makes digital technology vendors the primary competitors. Digital print allows ceramic manufacturers to expand their offerings to include unique tiles at competitive prices. Advancements in ink technology create opportunities for digital ceramic printing to prosper.
Apr2017, Industrial Print Magazine