Over the last decade, high-definition inkjet printing has been on the rise, mainly due to its ability to reproduce any image on any type of tile. The relatively new technology, which speeds up production up to five times faster than previous technologies such as silk screens, uses hundreds of injectors to create millions of small dots of color, allowing for more design options and significantly better resolution.

In addition to its imaging capabilities, digital printing technology is also considered a “green” process, since it utilizes fewer adhesives, chemicals, emulsions and film, and eliminates the need for roller replacements — thus, making it the ideal choice for customers seeking to create their own personalized tile designs in a more sustainable manner.

There are many advantages to this technology, since it presents new printing capabilities that companies weren’t able to accomplish with prior technologies. Marianne Cox, director of brand marketing for Marazzi USA, said the technique has opened new doors for the company, including new design capabilities. “Marazzi is the only manufacturer in the U.S. that can do digital printing up to 360 DPI, direct to tile,” she said. “At this maximum resolution, and with the unique grayscale printing technique, Marazzi reaches finer, crisper and smoother definition for printed designs than other digital products. A stunning palette of more than 100 square feet with no repetition, at maximum resolution, can be achieved.”

Many tile manufacturers agree that the largest advantage of high-definition inkjet printing is the range of design options it presents. “With digital inkjet technology, the designs are practically limitless,” said Cox. “The process allows us to scan in virtually any image and reproduce that image on tile, just like scanning and printing a picture.”

Paolo Mularoni, president of Del Conca USA, shares Cox’s views. “It has given us the opportunity to produce tiles with endless variations; there is no repetition, no two tiles look alike,” he said. “Repetition has always been considered one of the downsides for the looks of ceramic.”

Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of Crossville, explained that the printing process has “expanded the looks and styles we’re able to achieve.” “High resolution printing makes it possible to convincingly replicate the appearance of a range of materials, including stone, wood, fabric and cement,” she said.

Cox and Sean Cilona, director of marketing for Florida Tile, also noted how the process has created new options for glazing. “These new technologies allow us to leverage different types of glazes, resulting in unique and beautiful visual combinations, such as concrete, veining and metallics, as well as textured highs and lows in graphics or subtle patterns,” said Cox.

“We are also doing some really interesting things with top glaze applications along with the digital printing that allows us to create a unique surface texture,” added Cilona. “Right now, the possibilities are endless, and with the development of new pigments and glazes, we are really only limited by our imagination.”

Ryan Fasan, technical consultant for Tile of Spain, said the technology also opens up the possibility for custom ceramic work. “You can take any JPEG [file] and replicate it on tile,” he said. “They can reproduce just about any type of stone or wood, and are now moving into a more environmental take on that where they’re taking pictures of — like large groupings of endangered stones and woods. They’re able to use that type of look without harvesting actual, natural resources.”

At Crossville, Waldrep said they’ve adapted the technology to suit their needs. “We don’t rely on just digital alone to create our unique looks,” she said. “We call our approach ‘digital plus’ because we converge digital printing technology with other traditional methods of tile design to create more textured, layered, detailed looks. The digital printing doesn’t replace other production methods; it enhances them to take our product designs to new heights.”

Along with a variety of new design capabilities, Fasan said the technology also allows for faster production. “The average production run of an average glazed ceramic is about 8,000 to 10,000 square meters per color. In inkjet, they still run the same for the base glaze, but then they can do multiple different colors, which provide the capability to do much smaller production runs,” he said.

Although this technology allows for faster production, Waldrep said the design process still takes time. “It is important to realize that while digital is quick on the production line, the creation and preparation time it takes for a graphic designer to invent the looks and produce the files can be extensive,” she said. “Many people think using digital means that we can produce great tile with the flick of a switch, but really it takes the skill and time of artists and craftsmen to create truly remarkable tile with digital.”

Since the printing technology was first introduced, major improvements have been made. “Inkjet printers have become much more reliable and self-sufficient, allowing you to store more designs on one machine thanks to increased memory,” said Cox. “Also, while previously printers could only provide three colors of ink, they can now print with up to eight colors. With more base colors available, a larger range of vivid shades and tones can be created.”

“We are consistently pushing the limits of the machines and very regularly update the software, and internal components,” said Cilona. “With this constant updating, we have seen a dramatic increase in the quality of the print, from the vividness of the colors to the consistency of production and the definition that we are able to achieve with each and every graphic we produce.”

Manufacturers also agree that the new printing technology has made a large impact on the tile industry, mainly because of how it’s changed the production process. “It has shifted the research from a ‘hands-on’ approach, producing samples by hand using print screens, to one based on digital elaboration of images using computer graphic programs,” said Mularoni. “Production now requires different skills, with some highly specialized operators.”

With the seemingly limitless capabilities high-definition inkjet printing technology presents, more companies are turning to it for their everyday tile needs. Fasan estimates 90% of tile manufacturers are currently utilizing the technology, and Cox believes the technology will only improve from here on out. “Looking ahead, there will be more suppliers of digital printing that will be approved by the various digital printing equipment manufacturers for use in their machines, thus expanding the spectrum of color that can be achieved on a tile,” said Cox. “Also, manufacturers of digital printing machines will continue to find ways to combine other printing technologies with their machines in order to create even more sophisticated products that closely emulate not only natural stone looks, but also textiles, woods and other visuals that benefit from depth of color and sophisticated graphics.”

“The capabilities just keep getting greater and greater,” added Fasan. “A neat thing they’re doing is coming up with something totally new; they’re taking designs and mixing them together [from different stones] to get the movement from all of these different varieties. They’re moving into the creation of new things that are impossible [to replicate] with raw natural materials. You’re getting the look and feel of that natural material with the high durability and low maintenance that ceramic provides.”

“I think that this has really been the next big step in moving toward a product look that is more believable and realistic, which has always been the target of most product lines,” added Cilona.