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Archive for the ‘Ceramic Printing’ Category

Custom Printing on Ceramic Tiles

Friday, June 21st, 2013

I’ve been fascinated recently with the convergence of industrial printing and digital inkjet technology. Over the last several years, I have become aware of the vast store of commercial printing that has nothing to do with marketing goals or editorial commentary: the arena of functional, or industrial, printing.

As I look around the house I see custom printing of some sort on all manner of things, from the computer keyboard to the monitor, from the microwave control panel to the telephone. As I’ve noted in prior blogs, industrial printing is custom printing that serves a function. It actually does convey marketing information as well, now that I think about it, since the logos on the computer, keyboard, and monitor do highlight the brand. However, the main goal is functional.

That said, going forward this area will be very big for commercial printing suppliers. Think about Apple. The premium that Apple can charge for its products depends heavily on the industrial design of the iPhone, iMac, and iPad, and all of these depend in one way or another on industrial or functional printing.

Industrial Printing on Ceramic Tiles

Let’s shift from computers to ceramic tiles. As the housing market rebounds and people start upgrading their homes again, homeowners will add tiling to their floors and walls. These tiles usually have some coloration or patterning. Although it has had a long history going back to clay pots fired in the ground by native peoples across the globe, this decoration or embellishment is quickly moving toward inkjet printing, due to its speed, variability, ability to print on numerous substrates, high resolution, and price.

First, Some History

Analog: Contemporary decoration of ceramic tiles started with analog processes, such as printing with a laser-etched relief plate wrapped around a drum (flexography) or custom screen printing. Due to the enormous set-up and clean up costs involved, it was necessary to produce very long runs of tiles all with the same design in order to spread the costs across the entire print run and still make money.

Dye sub: Dye sub technologies using water based inks came next. Designs were printed onto carrier sheets and then transferred onto the tiles. For this to work, the tiles had to be specially coated to accept the ink, which seeped through the coating into the tile. The coating then protected the ink from scuffing. (All of this followed the ceramic firing process, since the high heat of the kilns would otherwise have incinerated the colorants.) Unfortunately, even though dye sub yielded a wide gamut of vivid colors, the process was slow and the product was not durable enough to withstand UV light (sunlight) or scuffing.

UV Printing: Flatbed printing of UV inks came next. This process yielded tiles with designs printed on the surface of the tile rather than within the tile (as was the case with dye sub printing). The tiles could tolerate UV light (sunlight) without fading, and the colorants were more durable but still not as durable as the analog-printed tiles. In addition, the speed of production did not come close to that of custom screen printing or flexography. Solvent and resin pigmented inks fell short as well.

Inkjet Printing: In the early 2000s inkjet became a viable ceramic printing technology due to its variability, speed, and ability to print on thick substrates. Ceramic tile printers were able to inkjet mineral pigments onto the tiles prior to their firing.

But there were some challenges:

  1. The colorants were limited. They were mostly opaque earth tones, unlike the transparent process colors used in offset printing, which could be overlaid to produce other hues.
  2. The mineral pigments had to be ground into very fine particles to pass through the nozzles in the print head arrays. In addition, the inks had to be thick, and ink droplets large, to achieve the solid ink coverage needed. Fortunately, organic oil worked well in the print head arrays as the ink solvent, and as an added benefit it would burn off during the heating of the tiles in the kilns.
  3. It was difficult to keep the mineral pigments suspended in their binders without their settling to the bottom of the fluid.
  4. Color calibration was a major challenge, since the process was not based on the traditional CMYK workflow, and since the high heat of kiln firing changes the hues of mineral pigments. In addition, the interaction between the glazes and the heat of the firing affected the ink colors.

The Up Side

For two reasons inkjet technology has been moving forward like a tidal wave into ceramic tile printing in spite of the challenges:

  1. The high resolution and overall quality of the output is stellar.
  2. There are huge financial rewards. In fact, some digital printers can make back their investment in ceramic tile presses in six months.

Why You Should Care

If you’re a graphic designer, your employment options extend beyond websites and print media, regardless of what happens to books, magazines, and newspapers. If you’re a commercial printing supplier, it may be time to broaden your outlook beyond publications, marketing collateral, and signage. There’s a whole new world of industrial and functional printing out there.

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