Digital ink-jet technology represents a new system of floor and wall tile decoration that is positioned to alter the way ceramic and porcelain is decorated forever.
Digital printing is a method of printing using digital techniques in which data and images are printed directly from a computer onto tile. The familiar digital printer (also referred to as an ink-jet printer) used in homes and offices for printing documents and photo-quality images employs the digital printing technique.
Ink jet-printing is a non-impact printing technology. It uses droplets of ink jetted from a small aperture to a specified position on a surface to create an image. Four colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK) – are combined in various ways to create virtually any colour required.
This technology has now evolved to allow this same printing process to be used on ceramic and porcelain tile. Using an ink-jet printing machine and four specially designed inks, the technology is used to create an unlimited number of high-quality patterns and decorations, with fewer materials, less waste and less development and production time than conventional processes.
This digital printing process turns photographs, artwork, designs, logos or virtually any image into elaborately decorated wall or floor coverings.
The use of ink-jet printing for ceramic tile manufacture is growing in Europe, and is outselling conventional “analog” systems. Ink-jet inks for ceramic printing tend to cost more than conventional inks; however, this is outweighed by the cost-saving in print rollers, the time saved in setting up analog systems and reduced inventory levels.
Ink-jet is a non-contact decorating process. Tiles exit the machine as quickly as they enter, achieving speeds as high as 50-metres per minute possible with photographic-quality reproduction. The decoration is applied all the way to the edge of each tile, unaffected by any mechanical limitations. Decorating relief tile is as easy as decorating flat tile. The relief design is simply entered into the computer and sent to the machine with the touch of a button. The machine adjusts itself accordingly and applies the design to compensate for the relief.
This new technology allows manufacturers to achieve almost infinite design variability. The standard ink-jet printing machine is equipped with enough memory to create a unique pattern that is nine-metres long and 36-centimetres wide – large enough to decorate about thirty 12 by 12-inch tiles in a row before a design has to be repeated. The computer can be instructed to sample any tile from any point in that row and reproduce it later on. For companies that want a larger design space – to reproduce a large slab of marble, for instance – additional memory can be added to the machine. Since the new technology is based on a digital design system, the possibilities are endless.
Ink-jet printing offers a greatly reduced colour palette, high versatility, ultra-fine resolution, 100 per cent edge-to-edge decoration, full relief decoration, completely random designs and computer control over the entire process.
With this new process, tile design and decoration is easier, less time consuming and less costly, giving manufacturers the chance to increase their range of products and designs while remaining competitive.
Ink-jet 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 ink-jet technology in tile production.
Estelle Davis has more than 35 years experience in the ceramic tile industry in Canada and the U.S. She can be reached at 416.567.9489.