It seems that it wasn’t too long ago when 24- x 24-inch tiles were considered to be “large format.” But nowadays, tiles of that size are considered standard. Advances in technology have caused an explosion of innovation in the market. Not only do tiles have larger measurements, but they are now being offered in full slabs. Large thin porcelain panels are creating a stir in the tile industry as a whole. The product is so new that there is still some debate over what to name it, and standards still need to be put into place. With sizes reaching as large as 5 x 10 feet and thicknesses as minimum as 3 mm, the new porcelain panels provide a new source of inspiration to the design community.

“The large porcelain tile market has always been there, however, the technology was not there yet,” said Rodolfo Panisi, CEO of StonePeak Ceramics of Crossville, TN. “As soon as the technology allowed us to produce 5- x 10-foot porcelain panels, we jumped on it.”

Panisi explained that StonePeak invested in a specific type of technology to manufacturer the large thin porcelain panels. “Our Italian-based group partnered with Sacmi press system, and today we have an exclusive technology.”

Moreover, research and development of the product was also important. “Our blood is in commercial, and we conducted research for a product that could be used for floor, wall, countertop, and interior and exterior applications,” said Panisi. “We developed a large porcelain panel that has a breaking strength of over 300 pounds per square foot — classifying our material for commercial floor applications. Our product is unique and a breakthrough. We also believe that the polished finish is an innovative step.

“Our Calacatta look has been very successful since it gives you the most contemporary look without the maintenance of a quarried stone,” Panisi went on to explain. “Porcelain has always been a better choice than quarried material, but porcelain’s limitation was the size — with a maximum of 24 x 24 or 24 x 48 inches. Now with the introduction of our 120- x 60-inch porcelain, I do not see any reason for a quarried material. It is the future of the tile industry. We call it the tile revolution.”

On the installation side

The introduction of large thin porcelain panels has prompted manufacturers of setting materials to develop products for this type of installation. “We work with [the manufacturers] on their concerns and how they want their product to be installed,” said Brian Gambrell, Project Manager at Tenax USA in Charlotte, NC. “We do research and development of the characteristics of these large-format tile. We ask ourselves a lot of questions: How does our adhesive perform in 8-, 10- and 12-foot-long sheets? Where will they be installed? What happens in hot or cold weather? What if the substrate is in high humid environments? How much time does it take to install a kitchen with these large-format tiles? Which adhesive is the best choice in this application: polyester, epoxy, latex? These are just the start of developing product-specific adhesives.

“A huge advantage that Tenax has is the fact that we have been working in the natural and engineered countertop adhesive business for over 50 years,” Gambrell went on to say. “We fully understand the ins and outs of what is required to make countertop installations. Additionally, we work directly with engineered stone manufacturers who are producing similar thin material for comparable applications. So, although the large-format tile is new to our industry, we have full knowledge of these materials and the adhesives required to install them correctly, efficiently and professionally.”

Sharing Panisi’s views, Gambrell also believes that large thin porcelain panels now compete with natural stone as well as engineered stone, solid surface and laminate products — especially for countertop and shower/bathroom installations. And with consumer demand only expected to rise, material setting manufacturers such as Tenax saw an opportunity to develop an adhesive specifically for this type of product.

“Because of the material being thin, the large-format panel must use a substrate, such as plywood or cement board,” Gambrell said. “Because these materials are much larger than standard tile, on a surface with a lot of flexibility and movement with substrates being exposed from underneath — cabinets moving, moisture affecting the substrate (dishwasher, sink areas), expansion and contraction concerns —Tenax wanted to create an adhesive specifically designed to deal with these very specific issues.”

When it comes to installing large thin porcelain panels, there are measures to be considered and taken. “The great thing about large-format tile is the instructions that the manufacturers provide for their product,” said Gambrell. “They will give specific guidelines on how they want their product installed. However, when installing the large-format panels, there will be a number of things that must be thought through — especially when applied on countertops. How will the front edge be finished? Many of the manufacturers will recommend making a 45-degree miter cut lamination to create a finished edge. What type of saw/equipment will be needed to make up to a 12-foot perfectly straight 45-degree cut?  This 45-degree cut will require another special type of 45-degree edge epoxy to laminate the 45-degree pieces together. Special handling equipment will be needed for transport and installation. As always, the right tools will make the installation go so much smoother and with a better finish.

“The future is definitely bright for this material,” Gambrell added. “There are many benefits for this material in many different applications. The colors that are being created are just amazing. The material is nonporous, stain proof, burn proof and heat proof. It is light-weight, and it can be used in practically any environment. And these materials are very affordable. There is definitely a strong market for these large-format tiles. Many people may not know much about it yet, but we will see these materials take the market by storm very soon — with long-term sustainability.”

Reasons for its growing popularity

And while on the topic of sustainability, Lee Hojin, Product & Marketing Director for Eleganza Tile of Anaheim, CA, an exclusive distributor of Slimtech from Lea Ceramiche, believes that the green movement is pushing the popularity of large thin porcelain panels. “The green factor alone is a big reason,” he said. “The weight of the product is resulting in fuel efficiency. You can load more than 44,000 square feet [of large thin porcelain panels] verses 11,000 square feet [of thicker material]. That’s a huge difference.

“The second green factor is that existing tile doesn’t have to be torn out,” Hojin went on to explain. “It’s a ‘reskinning’ concept. You don’t have to demo. It saves time, and the existing material doesn’t have to be put in a landfill. It also saves costs on tear outs. Contractors love it.”

Because the product is so new, Hojin explains that it hasn’t been embraced for residential design quite yet. “It hasn’t hit mainstream,” he said. “The A&D community is using it for healthcare and hospitality projects. Currently, it is being used mostly for wall applications and mid-traffic floors. I’m trying to promote it. There are 5- to 7-mm-thick panels that are getting popular. The more [consumers] see, the more popular they will become.

“At first it was very limited what could be done,” he went on to say. “They couldn’t be polished or textured. Now with a 5-mm thickness, they can make it more realistic with patterned grains. More and more people are embracing it with marbleized and wood looks.”

Hojin also stresses the importance of educating his clients. “It’s all about education,” he said. “When they see something thin, they question durability. When you tell them that [the panels] are extruded porcelain with fiberglass mesh, it’s really comforting to them. Also, showing them visuals and providing projects as references also helps. We have great Marriott and Hilton projects that we’ve done.”

In addition to educating the consumer, it is also important for installers to be aware of the characteristics of the new product. “They really need to study this,” said Hojin. “Manufacturers provide technical manuals, and setting material companies now embrace thin panels. They are coming up with products to install them and warranties.”