By Melissa Donovan
The term ceramic usually brings to mind tableware, tile floor, or bathroom surfaces. These are all opportunities for ceramic decoration, which traditionally occurs via screen printing processes. However, the recent influx of consumer demand for personalized, versioned, one-of-a-kind pieces has led ceramic manufacturers to turn elsewhere for their decoration capabilities.
Enter digital printing. Ideal for a number of reasons, perhaps mostly for the cost effectiveness of deploying short runs as small as one, in addition to limiting inventory to avoid waste and other costly challenges, digital printing technologies are being integrated or are already integrated in many ceramic manufacturing spaces worldwide.
But it isn’t just ceramic manufacturers that are utilizing the technology. Artists, architects, and other creatives can reach out to custom printers specializing in printing to ceramics to create everything from customized shower tiles to large murals shown in out-of-home settings.
Weeks to Minutes
Digital Ceramics Group began in 2001 with two employees to sell machinery, toners, and consumables to the ceramic manufacturing industry worldwide. However, it was quickly presented with an opportunity to team up with Michael Zimmer, patent holder for ceramic toner technology, and began offering digital printing services as well.
Gavin Riley, managing director, Digital Ceramics Group, leveraged a background in digital print from a previous employer to help build the company. In 1997, while at Rathbone, he was given a digital printer to work with and his first task was writing a manual for it. “It was a new, fast way to do high-resolution ceramic transfers. Before digital printing, the only option was screen printing, which could take weeks for a four or five color job. Once we started using digital printing, we could finish a job in minutes,” says Riley.
The short turnaround time is one of the reasons digital print is the main technology used at Digital Ceramics Group. It is a leading manufacturer of digital ceramic permanent printing and committed to a strong research and development strategy to continually develop and evolve innovations and technology.
“We are purely digital,” explains Riley and Mark Wood, director, Digital Ceramics Custom Tiles. The team purchases mainstream digital printers and converts them in house using patented ceramic toner. Riley and Wood admit that it is an ongoing learning curve, developing and changing their process as technology evolves and new printers are introduced.
The business group includes four main entities—Digital Ceramics Systems, providing ceramic printing technologies; Digital Ceramics Large Format, which offers large format printing; Digital Ceramics Transfer; which involves transfer printing; and Digital Ceramics Custom Tiles.
While Digital Ceramics Group initially planned to use its digital technology to supply transfers to the tableware industry, specifically more bespoke requests, it quickly realized the potential for projects on a much larger scale.
In 2011, Digital Ceramics Group was asked by a tile manufacturer to produce a large scale art project for the London 2012 Olympic Stadium. It consisted of over 16,000 30 centimeter, individual porcelain tiles—each with a different image that when combined created a large-scale mural.
With a successful outcome, Digital Ceramics Group set up Surface Design Studio to act as a bespoke arm to the company, offering custom printing services to artists, interior designers, and architects. In 2021, Surface Design Studio rebranded as Digital Ceramics Custom Tiles to align better with the overall family of brands.
Today, Digital Ceramics Group’s 5,000 square foot headquarters is out of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England and offers both ceramic transfer and ceramic printing technology in house. A total of ten employees offer global services to ceramic manufacturers, ceramic artists, universities, and colleges.
The Digital Ceramics Custom Tiles division not only has a base in the U.K. location, but also operates out of Calabasas, CA in the U.S. and a Middle East location in the Sanayeh district of Beirut, Lebanon.
The services offered out of this arm of the company are completely customizable, from the choice of the base tile to whether it is a three-dimensional shape. Ceramic tiles for either the wall or floor are kiln fired for a permanent, scratch resistant, UV stable, and weatherproof finish.
Some of the projects to come out of Digital Ceramics Custom Tiles include tiled signage solutions, repeating tile patterns, Pantone or RAL matched gazes, anti-slip floor glazes, and large-scale murals.
An example of tiled signage solutions includes work for a client in TX that required signage associated with oil rigs. The signage was suited for the high temperatures of 104/122 degrees Fahrenheit. “Commercial printing solutions would fade in this heat, but digitally printed UV stable printing doesn’t fade in sunlight,” explains Riley.
Large-scale murals—which is of course the application that was the force behind starting this custom division—can’t be completed in any way besides digital, according to Riley. “We are able to offer external, permanent, UV-stable printing solutions.”
A high-profile project was completed for retail and entertainment complex American Dream’s indoor DreamWorks Water Park in East Rutherford, NJ in 2020. DreamWorks contacted Digital Ceramics Custom Tiles directly through its website.
The film studio requested bespoke tiles that could be ready in a short turnaround time. The tiles needed to remain colorfast while combatting daily interaction with pool and cleaning chemicals like chlorine. They are highly fade, mold, and scratch resistant; waterproof; and durable enough to resist damage from frost and UV light. Fired at temperatures between 1,472 and 2,282 degrees Fahrenheit, the tiles feature a long-lasting finish for the commercial leisure center area.
Utilizing its in-house ceramic printing technology in a span of four weeks, the custom printer completed 18,500 individually printed pieces of tile that when placed together make up 5,920 square feet. The design was placed throughout the lazy river element of the water park, with murals from three of DreamWorks’ animated entities—Shrek, Kung Foo Panda, and The Penguins of Madagascar.
“Time restraints meant that we worked closely with the DreamWorks designers and project management team to consider all challenges within the project brief and by identifying potential issues, we were able to provide solutions in advance,” notes the company’s case study on the project.
A challenge noted by Riley and Wood involved back and forth with the client on the tile sizes. “The original tile sizes were too big to allow a smooth finish around the curvature of the water park. We recommended using 10×10 tiles and agreed on 300×100, which helped the curvature and meant much less grout lines.”
DreamWorks was pleased with the final appearance of the lazy river, in addition to the quick turnaround time Digital Ceramics Custom Tiles delivered in a professional manner. With the success of the initial mural, the film studio also requested tile projects for the waterfall and wave pool areas of the water park.
Good News for Customers
Clients like DreamWorks understand the benefits of digital printing technologies, which has changed the ceramic decoration business.
“Digital printing allows the customer to offer a more bespoke solution. You can print on demand, it has a fast turnaround, doesn’t chemically deteriorate, you don’t have to have large stock holdings that may lose quality overtime, it gives the end user more choice, and gives the customer more freedom and flexibility,” share Riley and Wood.
Large-scale murals are an application that Digital Ceramics Custom Tiles didn’t initially intend to focus so heavily on, but the segue has opened up a host of new industries and market opportunities for the company as it continues to do work with big name brands in entertainment, leisure, and attraction industries all while offering bespoke tiles to its loyal base of architects, designers, and more.
Oct2021, Industrial Print Magazine