Digital Ceramic Printing Continues to Cast a New Business Model for Output Providers
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Digital Ceramic Printing Continues to Cast a New Business Model for Output Providers

Inkjet technology has made a huge impact on what manufacturers can create, and the mass acceptance of these designs from the world markets has promoted the swift transformation from screen and roller printing to utilizing inkjet technology.

By Bill Schiffner

Over the past decade, inkjet and other digital technologies have been revolutionizing production processes in many printing segments.

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  • One traditional market making a quick and easy transition to digital printing methods is the area of ceramic tile decoration. Inkjet technology has made a huge impact on what manufacturers can create, and the mass acceptance of these designs from the world markets has promoted the swift transformation from screen and roller printing to utilizing inkjet technology in the production of tile and other ceramic products.

    Digital ceramic printing technology has now become accepted as a viable alternative to screen, allowing users to output jobs on-demand, eliminating the costly need of huge stock print runs. Today, ceramic toners and printers can produce high-resolution photo-quality transfers, with smooth halftones and vibrant ceramic colors.

    Growing in Numbers
    SGIA's 2011 Industrial Printing Survey Report indicated that more than 75 percent of respondents utilize digital printing and also consider ceramic tile printing to be a strong market opportunity. Some industry analysts have also been projecting rapid growth in ceramic tile inkjet printing, as noted by Dr. Ray Work, Work Associates, Inc. "The tile industry is moving toward inkjet," reported Dr. Work. "The financial incentives are so great that the entire industry is converting rapidly to inkjet."

    The use of inkjet printing for ceramic tile manufacturing is growing in Europe, China and India, and is outselling conventional analog systems. Inkjet inks for ceramic printing tend to cost more than conventional inks but the cost is outweighed by the savings in print rollers, the time saved in setting up analog systems and reduced inventory levels.

    "The versatility of digital printing technology has effectively redefined the role of tile from a functional wall cover or flooring to more of a projection screen," agreed Christopher Howard, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Durst Image Technology US. "Tiles are now almost as much a presentation and marketing medium as they are interior design objects. The range and possibilities of applications are constantly expanding. Designs, together with surface structures and effects, are becoming unique selling points for manufacturers.

    "You now see reproductions of natural stone, wood, photographs, paintings - the possibilities of this inkjet technology are virtually limitless," Howard added. "And along with conventional CMYK configurations, you can include special colors such as brown, white, black, even metallic special effect inks to achieve an authentic reproduction - like marble - or shading and rich colors."

    Digital Developments at Durst
    Durst has been a leading developer of digital printing machines for the decoration of ceramic surfaces. With the continuous development of the inkjet technology, Durst has contributed to the transformation of the tile from a functional wall and floor covering to an interior and design object, from the reproduction of natural stone, wood, photography or elaborate surface structures and effects. The company's inkjet technology is said to enable precise ink application down to the picoliter, in almost unlimited variations, with the highest printing quality, to save material and costs, reduce storage risks and maintain sustainable practices.

    Durst offers industrial printers for this market including the Gamma 75 HD-R. This machine offers proprietary Advanced High Definition Contone Grayscale Technology, and is said to be one of the fastest digital printers on the market for the digital, high-definition decoration of ceramic tiles, with linear printing speeds up to 90 meters per minute. The Gamma 75 HD-R features the unique capability of jetting high ink quantities to achieve designs with vibrant, strong colors and high contrast.

    Howard added that due to its innovative concept, performance, reliability, tonal consistency and impressive image quality in terms of definition and dynamic range, Gamma 75 HD-R is also "the ideal printer to cope with for glaze lines with high capacity and productivity."

    EFI Gets Creative with Ceramics
    Another major player in this market is EFI, who acquired Castellón, Spain-based Cretaprint in 2012. The company recently unveiled the latest generation of inkjet presses for ceramics with the Cretaprint C3, a multipurpose digital ceramic decoration printer that leverages five years of research and development.

    "It is a growing market and while it is a segment that many may not think of immediately when you discuss the idea of printing, it can leverage many of the same technological advancements taking place in the digital printing world," reported Emilio Estrelles of EFI Cretaprint. "As far as its growth goes, worldwide tile production has grown at a healthy rate of six to eight percent per year. Much of that production growth is in manufacturing lines that will use inkjet decoration, so there is an outstanding opportunity for EFI."

    Estrelles pointed out that these trends, especially the trend of manual and analog decoration moving to digital printing, were an important factor in the acquisition. The ceramic industry was a natural extension of EFI, with a dramatic growth opportunity and a significant future upside bringing EFI's ecosystem of ink and software to this market. Cretaprint increases EFI's footprint and business in emerging markets, where it is a leading manufacturer of industrial inkjet printers used to decorate ceramic tiles.

    He reported that industrial ceramic tile decoration is typically not a market for traditional graphic arts flatbed inkjet printers: "Tile decoration is usually completed in-line on the tile manufacturing lines, and the printing takes place immediately before tiles go into the kiln for their final firing."

    Estrelles said that Cretaprint's customer base is heavily centered on China, India, Turkey, Spain and Italy: "In some respects, our presence in these countries also reflects an opportunity for EFI to continue growing in some strategic geographic markets as well."

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    Cretaprint C3
    The new Cretaprint C3 features a single chassis able to accommodate up to eight print bars, which are easy to access due to a new slide-bar design, and can be independently configured for printing and special decoration effects. The flexible and innovative multipurpose system offers more than 1000 customizable settings, from print width and speed to printer direction and ink discharge, and allows working with different printheads in the same machine - some for printing and others with stronger ink discharge to apply special decoration effects. Its compact design and footprint allows it to be easily incorporated into an existing ceramic tile production line.

    The Cretaprint C3 comes with an optional Fiery proServer, the first dedicated color management solution for the ceramic market, redefining the design and production process for color in the ceramic imaging space by enabling predictable, controllable and automated results. The Fiery ceramic workflow serves as the bridge between a ceramic print environment's production and business management solutions. The workflow reduces waste, increases productivity, and boosts profitability through measurement-based processes that eliminate the trial-and-error approach to color management.

    "The ceramic market is rapidly adopting digital technology, and EFI Cretaprint is leading this worldwide transformation. The C3 (our third-generation ceramic printer) allows increasing the speed of production lines and creates differentiated products through innovations implemented in each area of the machine, making the C3 more flexible, efficient and with the greatest reliability of the market," Estrelles said.

    "The development of the color management will be a key factor in the industry, with the launch of a new printhead with more resolution and ink discharge," he continued. "But the real innovation will be to be able to adapt to each customer's need. Each production plan, each design, each market requires different features and characteristic, so the customization of the machine will be a key factor to be flexible to meet their real needs."

    Enduring Images
    Laser technology is also playing a major role in this market. One of the pioneers in this area is Enduring Images, who has worked with Michael Zimmer, founder of MZ Toner Technologies, to develop a process utilizing laser print technology. Over the past 15 years, Zimmer expanded his patents to cover ceramic pigment-based toner formulations and a variety of digital ceramic technologies for printing his patented ceramic toners. The end result was the invention of the first and only patented digital ceramic decal printer. Digital ceramic decals are now used to decorate a very wide variety of ceramic materials in economic quantities of one to 1000. Enduring Images is the only authorized North American distributor for MZ Toner Technologies.

    "We were one of the first companies in North America to start printing digital images on ceramic products (such as dishes, glassware, dinnerware, tiles, and murals), and that experience can be seen in the quality of our products," said Enduring Images COO Ron Manwiller.

    "Today, our digital ceramic printers use state-of-the-art technology and improved ceramic toners to produce high-quality decals that can be applied to almost any type of ceramic surface. In fact, in 2011, one of the tile murals that we printed was featured on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," he added.

    Manwiller explains their process involves using standard inexpensive, off-the-shelf Ricoh Laser printers and Adobe Photoshop image editing software. "It's a traditional and well established computer-to-print workflow. The process is identical to making a laminated driver's license or piece of laminated marketing material, but in our case you are making a waterside ceramic decal. First you digitize the image, bring into Photoshop to desired spec, print, and then laminate in a standard pouch laminator. A decal can be made and the substrate decorated in less than two minutes once the Photoshop work is done. From that point you would drop the decal in water and then slide onto the substrate you are decorating."

    More Reliability
    He said the most significant trend in this area is toward decorating ceramic substrates with true inorganic ceramic pigments versus organic sublimation inks. "This is occurring as ceramic printing systems get more reliable, easier to use and less expensive. The availability of a variety of toner options for various decorating requirements, including food-safe ceramic toners for commercial tableware, is also part of it. The new systems are inexpensive and very flexible. It is an ideal start-up manufacturing asset because it is inexpensive, safe to use, environmentally clean and the creativity is endless."

    Manwiller explained that they have customers decorating soapstone bourbon chillers, dental veneers, tile (Tile for municipal construction is highly graffiti-resistant and can be cleaned in all of the traditional ways, including steam and solvent.), tableware and all kinds of special event products and awards, souvenirs and commemoratives.

    "All deliver commercial ceramic durability - no color fading (ceramic pigments are fundamentally chemically UV stable so they do not need UV stabilizers), very high resistance to scratch and abrasive wear, etc. The most important application is a very low cost, highly flexible manufacturing system that enables entrepreneurs to start business making products they don't have to worry about because they will last many generations and look beautiful. It is the end use that I am most proud of."

    He pointed out that they have several sign companies using their system. "Our entry level turnkey systems (including kiln) can be purchased for under $7000. Full-scale commercial systems go up from there and will be configured to meet the specific interests of the customer."

    KVO Industries
    One of their customers is KVO Industries, a porcelain enamel sign company based in Santa Rosa, California that specializes in high-quality porcelain enamel signs for various markets including national parks, public art, zoos, museums and theme parks.

    "Although we primarily use a proprietary high-resolution printing process, we have found the digital decal process works extremely well for specific projects where small, high volume repeating images or logos are required," said Steve Vandyk, president at KVO Industries. "The cost savings can be significant as compared to traditional screen printing which has enabled us to land projects we otherwise may not have. We are currently working on developing new products based entirely on the digital decal process and are extremely excited about the future possibilities for this technology," he added.

    Bill Schiffner has covered the imaging industry for more than 20 years. He has reported on the many new digital technologies that have reshaped the imaging marketplace. bschiffner@optonline.net

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, September / October 2013 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2013 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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