Ceramic Tile Report: Technical advances bring innovation to the category - Mar 2016
By Calista Sprague
At first blush, visitors glancing through one of the recent tile exhibitions might feel like there is nothing new under the sun. Wood looks, cement looks, stone looks and larger formats have been trending for a while now. But innovations in the ceramic tile industry abound. Rather than creating a big splash with shocking new looks, recent advancements in the tile industry have mainly brought about improvements to existing looks, and closer inspection reveals impressive results.
Manufacturers have leveraged recent printing developments and new techniques for producing texture to substantially raise the bar in tile design. Those seemingly familiar wood, cement and stone looks have evolved considerably with increased realism through illusions of texture in improved graphics, surface texture with graniglia and depth from polishing. A few brand new design trends have emerged as well, injecting plenty of excitement into the industry.
When a Spanish company called Kerajet debuted the first inkjet printer at Cevisama in 2000, the tile industry was forever changed. The ability to accurately print a digital image on the surface of a tile opened up a new world of design possibilities, and ever since, tile manufacturers have been experimenting with images, sometimes to create facsimiles or enhancements of other materials, sometimes to pay homage to a particular artist, and sometimes to develop a purely original design.
Ryan Fasan, partner at the international consulting firm Professional Attention to Tile Installations (PATTI), says that manufacturers continually raise design standards. “Making something that looks like something else is easy now,” Fasan says. “Any manufacturer can make a tile that looks like a stone. But the masters are manipulating the technology in such a way that they are emulating the touch of the stone or the wood or the metal as well as the look, and you can’t tell the difference.” He points out that the images from nature are also being enhanced in many cases, receiving artistic touches to elevate the final design beyond anything found in the natural world, and he adds, “It’s a very neat place for the industry to be.”
Today, several companies produce inkjet printers, and according to Fasan, about half are Spanish and half are Italian. There are also several firms that specialize in creating the ink heads, the most crucial part of a printer.
Inkjet printers began much like desktop inkjets with four-color heads that accurately applied pigment (made of natural oxides) to tile as prescribed by a digital image from a computer. Over the years, manufacturers have invested in machines with greater capabilities, and the most recent printers boast up to 16 heads, although most factories currently operate equipment with six to 12.
Depending on the design, six of the heads might be utilized for color, while others are dedicated to more recently developed options: glazes, metallic ink, reactive ink or sublimating ink. For a few years now, glazes and metallic ink have been added to digitally produced designs with computerized precision for another layer of rich visual effect, especially for wall tile.
Just last year, Spanish innovators introduced reactive inks that puff up in the kiln to produce fine raised texture within an intricate design. And now sublimating inks are available that sink down through the glaze after the tile is fired for another fine texture option. These latest innovations are just beginning to make their way into tile manufacturing facilities, so it will be interesting to see how resulting designs evolve during the next few years.
Inkjet printers have not completely replaced earlier technology, however. Rotocolor, which came on the scene in the 1990s, applies design to tile with laser-cut silicone rollers coated with color. Because the image is rolled on, exact image placement is difficult to control, and the color cannot be applied to low spots in textured tile. While some facilities, especially newer ones, have gone 100% digital, many others continue to use rotocolor. Several producers report, for example, that they have existing lines that were developed on rotocolor and still sell well. “The equipment is already purchased and it’s still working,” explains Crossville VP of marketing Lindsey Waldrep, adding, “So why not utilize your capacity to the best of your ability? It’s the best way to drive a profit,” a sentiment echoed by several other manufacturers.
From a design standpoint, rotocolor is also currently utilized to create base layers of color or design underneath a digital image, actually adding depth to the visual. Also, inkjet printers do not produce saturated colors well, so rotocolor can be used to achieve deeper tones. (Surprisingly, white was a color that eluded inkjet technology for many years, but has since been developed as well.)
“Several lines we’re launching this year incorporate some type of a rotocolor application along with the digital technology,” says Sean Cilona, director of marketing and product development for Panaria group’s Florida Tile. “That rotocolor process is very important for adding dimension, sometimes with a color, sometimes just with a glaze or another type of application to add to the graphic.”
Rotocolor is being used less and less, however, especially as older rotocolor designs are retired. Also, inkjet printers work optimally when running continuously, giving manufacturers incentive to utilize the inkjets as much as possible. Fasan explains, “As soon as you stop putting product through an ink jet printer, the inks harden and clog up the heads, and it’s difficult and costly to clean them.” So for some manufacturers, it may make sense to convert old rotocolor designs to inkjet.
Dal-Tile’s new Tennessee manufacturing facility is set to open within the next few weeks. Executive VP of product and marketing Gianni Mattioli says that the plant will accommodate larger formats and will allow expand rectification capabilities and bring polishing capabilities to the U.S., which previously had only been available at its facilities overseas.
In the past two years, wall tiles have exploded with dimension, and manufacturers continue to churn out inventive new styles of 3-D looks for walls. For floors, however, dimension is impractical, and even textures have to be well thought out. Cleanability is a factor, for instance, since grooves and divots tend to attract dirt, and uneven texture, if deep enough, could also potentially create a trip hazard.
Texture traditionally comes from punches that create impressions in the tile, but one of the latest developments for texture in flooring tiles is the expanded use of graniglia or grit in the finish to create a rougher surface. The particles can be evenly placed for an all-over texture on a tile, in a specified pattern, or in coordination with the digital imagery to enhance a graphic. In addition to providing added dimension, utilizing graniglia can also improve DCOF (dynamic coefficient of friction) scores for floor tile.
Waldrep and others say that much of the texture in tile for floors today is actually more visual than tactile. In the realistic wood and stone looks, for example, tromp l’oeil illusions of raised grain or recessed divots give the distinct impression of physical texture, but touching the tile reveals a much more even surface. Subtler in-register texturing on the surface or from a punch lends additional authenticity to the effect, while maintaining cleanability and safety.
Fine glass particles called frits are also being used in new ways, added to the decoration to lend a glittery shine to designs for both floors and walls. Several stone looks for the floor, whether matte or polished, incorporated the shimmering effect at Cevisama.
Thick tile, which at 2cm is about double the thickness of standard tile, is a new construction developed in Italy that is making its way to the U.S. The thick porcelain tiles were created for outdoor applications and look and perform much like pavers. They can be sand set, grass set or installed on a pedestal system. A pedestal installation allows for a completely flat patio space that floats above a graded slope for drainage, a major benefit. Also, the installation is far faster, easier and less expensive than tile in a traditional mortar bed or wood decking. The 2cm tiles can be used on rooftops, around pools, for outdoor kitchens, and even for driveways.
Both Del Conca and Florim started producing 2cm product in their American facilities last summer. The new tile category opens up the possibility for market expansion into an area where porcelain has not traditionally been used, and both companies hope to gain traction in the outdoor market this spring.
The only drawback to thick tiles is their weight. The porcelain is heavy, and shipping the product from abroad, or even across the U.S., is costly.
On the other end of the spectrum, thin tile continues to be shown at all the major tile shows, measuring 3mm to 7.8mm thick, with formats topping out at 5’x10.5’. Although the slim products are a decade old now and are produced by a myriad of companies, thin tile is still in its infancy. Recently, the Tile Council of North America invested in research to help create ANSI standards for specification and installation, which are still pending. Once standards are in place, it will be interesting to see if designers and installers embrace the product more fully.
Installers have been trickling through thin tile training programs offered by manufacturers, but most are still unfamiliar with the product, so despite the popularity of large format tiles, the adoption of thin tile has been slow, especially for floors.
Fasan says that thin tiles perform well for floors when installed in a medium bed mortar or over existing tile with a layer of self leveler in between. But the biggest success of thin tiles he has seen has been for things like cabinetry, furniture and even drop ceilings. In one project he was involved in, fire doors were clad with thin tile to lend both design and function to the utilitarian and usually unattractive safety feature.
Formats for traditional tile continue to grow ever larger, and U.S. producers are investing in equipment to handle the expanding product. Both designers and homeowners favor rectangles over squares, and most manufacturers say that 12”x24” tiles are the biggest sellers. But demand is steadily increasing for larger tiles. Planks of varying widths in 32”, 36” and 48” lengths are fairly commonplace, and even longer planks are becoming available. Emser carries an extruded 71” plank, for example.
Design preferences across the country have become more universal as regional differences in design trends have narrowed dramatically during the past decade. Whereas manufacturers and distributors once had to offer different products to appeal to the Northeast, for instance, rather than for the South or the West Coast, today’s products are more likely to appeal to consumers across the country.
Industry leaders cite the Internet and cable channels like HGTV as the catalysts for the design homogenization, saying that homeowners and designers now have unprecedented access to follow design trends from different areas of the country and even from abroad, access that was once extremely limited.
“We’re seeing that many designs are well received everywhere in the U.S.,” explains Paolo Mularoni, president of Del Conca USA. “The big difference is the color.” He offers an example of a popular tile that comes in a variety of colors. The vast majority of the white option gets sold in Florida and California, whereas the same tile sells well in Texas, but in a dark brown. “It’s surprising because it’s the same tile, the same look, but different colors go to different locations.”
One of the universal trends that has burst onto the scene within the past year is the brick look. It can be found for floors and walls, residential and commercial, in everything from minimalistic painted visuals to scanned images of rough, worn brick from New York or Chicago.
Wood looks for tile have been around so long, Crossville’s Waldrep says, “Wood is not a trend. It’s here to stay.” Manufacturers unanimously listed wood looks as their strongest sellers, saying that the winning formula of the performance and cleanability of ceramic tile combined with the warmth and natural appearance of wood appeals to consumers.
Within the wood look category, trends have shifted from the early traditional visuals to more and more rustic looks. Now so many different options abound that it is difficult to pinpoint a distinct wood tile trend. Gianni Mattioli, EVP of product and marketing at Dal-Tile says that rustic looks are still in vogue, but contemporary Scandinavian looks with smoother, more monochromatic visuals are also trending. “The market is all over the place,” he says.
Regardless of the look, realism is generally the main goal, and some wood looks are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, especially with developments in more sophisticated texturing. Also, the formats continue to trend wider and longer, now up to 9”x48”.
Stone is another perennial design category, and at Cersaie and Cevisama, stone looks with heavy veining and multiple colors were plentiful. But Cilona from Florida Tile points out, “In the U.S. we’re hesitant to do anything really strong, especially if it’s dark. We see a toned-down version of what’s going on in Europe. White marbles, Carraras, light travertines and light slate with a calmer graphic have been popular for the last couple years.”
The white looks like Carraras and Calacattas are especially popular now, going along with the color trends in the overall design world toward whites and greys. Aqueous colors are also trending, with watery blues and blue greens prevalent at both Cersaie and Cevisama. Lighter colors in general tend to be preferred by U.S. consumers, especially in tiles with pattern, although plenty of bright and bold colors were on display at the international shows. Greys are beginning to move toward warmer tones; however, cool greys are still prevalent.
Concrete looks continue to sell well, especially appropriate for the urban renewal and industrial interior designs that are so hot these days. In recent months, aggregate looks have emerged, offering a new twist on concrete.
The fusion of different materials is also trending, and the blend of a concrete look with a wood look is an interesting new visual that a few manufacturers are exploring. Mularoni says that Del Conca will present a 40” plank in the fused look at Coverings. “In the recent past, concrete looks have been well received, but they have a tendency to be perceived as a little too commercially oriented, a little too cold sometimes. The blend with wood makes it more welcoming.” He believes that warming up the concrete with wood elements may make it appealing to a wider range of consumers.
Polished looks are beginning to trend, and even a few examples of high polished wood have popped up at recent shows. More commonly, manufacturers are offering both a polished look and a natural matte option of the same stone, which creates two very different looks with a single graphic. The polish brings out the richness of color, adding depth to the stone visuals, and mixing the polished and unpolished stones opens up possibilities for creating large-scale patterns in a room.
Both a high polish and lappato, or semi-polish, are being produced, and even the high polished looks meet the minimum DCOF standard for floors, although they would not be appropriate for commercial settings where the tile might be walked on when wet. The polished looks are mainly coming out of European factories, and manufacturers say that they are difficult to achieve.
Wall tile, especially in collections with coordinating floor tile, has also been trending. In the past, wall and floor tile differed more significantly than today. Wall tile was traditionally made of lightweight bisque ceramic to help it adhere to the wall, a product that is inappropriate for floors. So wall tile and floor tile were completely distinct products. However, modern advancements in setting materials have made it possible to put heavier, floor-rated porcelain and ceramic on the wall without slumping, thus blurring the lines between what constitutes a floor tile or wall tile.
Manufacturers say that the overwhelming majority of their products, in some cases more than 95%, are suitable for both surfaces. The remaining percentage tends to be tiles made of materials like glass or metal and the dimensional or high-gloss tiles that can only be used on vertical surfaces.
Although true ceramic tile is still produced, more so in Mexico and Spain than elsewhere, the offerings from American producers and distributors are mostly made of porcelain, and the few ceramic products are often sourced. In fact, some companies, like Florida Tile, offer porcelain exclusively. Due to porcelain’s inherent density and low porosity, the tiles are appropriate for both floors and walls, so manufacturers turn to ceramic mainly to fill in lower price points and occasionally to obtain a particular design that is not available in porcelain.
Wall tile has always been a much smaller part of the ceramics market in the U.S. than in Europe, especially in recent decades. However, in the past year or two, U.S. wall tile sales have been on the rise, creating a growth segment for tile producers and distributors, and the phenomenon may be taking hold. The popularity of floor to ceiling tile in shower stalls has often been credited for creating a renewed interest in wall tile. The trending use of tile in floor to ceiling fireplace surrounds, feature walls and backsplashes in kitchens and baths has bolstered wall tile sales as well.
Several manufacturers, including Dal-Tile, said that they are increasing their investment in tile designed for the wall. “Wall tile seems to be a surging category for us and for the marketplace,” says Bob Baldocchi, VP of marketing, sales support and business development at Emser Tile. “At least 20% to 30% of the business is going somewhere other than floors, and we see that growing.” Most manufacturers produce wall and floor combinations, and some even offer coordinating porcelain slabs for use on countertops and vanities to help facilitate selection for consumers.
Like an area rug as an add-on for hard surface sales, manufacturers say that the increased interest in wall tile offers a potential add-on for ceramic sales. “It’s one area retail dealers need to embrace,” says Manuel Llerena, director of sales and marketing at MS International. “If they don’t specialize in wall tile, they don’t know how many floors they’re losing.” Llerena points out that individual wall tile sales tend to be smaller than for floors, which may put some flooring retailers off, but the growing preference of consumers to one-stop shop combined with increasing wall tile sales may sway flooring-only dealers to reconsider if the trends continue.
Just as the line between floor and wall tile has blurred, so has the line between commercial and residential tile. Manufacturers and distributors do a varied amount of business in the two markets, with companies like Crossville weighted more toward the commercial market and others like Florim aiming more for the residential market, and several companies like Dal-Tile covering both markets. However, much of the product created by manufacturers, regardless of intended market, can be installed in both residential and commercial settings.
Heavy commercial tile is a distinct product category, with stiff performance standards, including high breaking strength and high resistance to abrasion and tread wear, in order to withstand environments like automotive dealerships, where cars are routinely driven and parked on the tile. The products are often unglazed and made with through-body, also called full-body, construction, where the color and pattern on top continue throughout the full thickness of the tile, or double loaded construction, where the color and pattern persist through the top quarter or third of the tile body.
However, requirements for light to medium commercial tile are less stringent, and even producers specializing in residential tile tend to construct product suitable for commercial specification. Florim does 95% of its business in the residential market, yet VP of sales and marketing Stefano Rabaioli says that all of its products are rated for commercial use.
The porcelain and denser ceramics made today inherently possess greater breaking strength and lower water absorption, and companies are commonly producing to the DCOF standard of 0.42 for wet tile and a Mohs hardness scale value of 7 or more for scratch resistance.
Dal-Tile’s Mattioli estimates that less than 30% of tile produced by its three brands would be considered inappropriate for commercial use. “For the past few years there has been a lot of crossover with products that can go both commercial and residential, especially high-end residential,” he explains. “It’s a blurry line and it’s getting blurrier, which is probably not a bad thing.”
Crossover is actually a great thing for manufacturers and distributors, since they can create and stock a single tile that can be sold for floors or walls in the residential or commercial market, rather than producing and stocking four separate SKUs.
In general, from a design standpoint, commercial collections tend to be less patterned and more conservative, especially for projects like banks or legal offices, than collections intended for the home. However, the lines blur in hospitality and senior living settings, for example, where the feel of home is desired. And in higher end residential design, especially in metropolitan areas, many homeowners prefer the sleeker, more modern or industrial looks commonly found in commercial offerings.
SPOTLIGHT ON DISTRIBUTORS
While many distributors source existing product from tile producers, others play a big role in designing and developing product, partnering closely with manufacturers to bring unique looks to market.
Copyright 2016 Floor Focus