Market trends are not easy to predict, but sometimes they are even difficult to evaluate in hindsight. The popularity of large ceramic tiles was initially a result of creative Italian producers experimenting with their product. Why they became so popular is still subject to discussions, but their impact on the market means that manufacturers need to adjust their business models to be competitive.
FROM SMALL AND THICK TO LARGE AND THIN
In the premature stages of the ceramic tile production, substrates were handmade, and clay was shaped using some wooden frames. The decoration was applied on top of the clay after drying and the first firing. Then the tiles were fired again to final shape and appearance.
Of course, it was a huge limitation that improper clay limited both size and thickness.
The first improvement was done with industrial pressing, allowing a much stronger substrate. Then the thickness could be reduced while keeping some of the mechanical properties of the tiles.
Single-firing technology was the next step. This was a tough challenge for the substrates. While still being quite fragile, they had to be decorated before entering firing stage.
This was the first time high plastic raw materials and additives were introduced in the clay, resulting in higher performance before firing, both in green and in dried states.
Next challenge appeared as sizes grew and each tile became too heavy to handle correctly. Thin tiles were one of the options, but their technical demands were very high.
Last, but not least, is the production of huge slabs, up to 1600 x 3400 mm, with a thickness of 3 or 4 mm. The technical requirements for these tiles made clay additives a must.
What will be next challenge?
ARE MY RAW MATERIALS OPTIMUM?
Formulation of the different bodies are based on different raw materials, some of them locally available, others imported.
The availability of certain imported clays are limited. The resulting high price makes it unattainable in most formulas. Producers then turn to additives as a substitute for some properties required.
Typically, plasticity and whiteness are not going together in ceramic raw materials. More and more, additives are putting the difference into formulations that may work or not when being introduced into large tiles’ production lines.
A TRIMMED PRODUCTION LINE
Compared to standard or small sizes, large tiles with high mechanical requirements need a modified production line. No curves or height gaps may exist in these lines, so they should be refurbished or entirely new.
Today, having these limitations in mind, and the potential glazing and decoration through ink printing technologies, lines tend to be shorter than in the past, concentrating different steps in a single machine.
The future of big tiles production is to concentrate different applications in a single step to reduce the handling and movement of the green slabs.
SOME IDEAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
It seems quite clear that large tiles will remain in the market for a long time. We may solve the technological challenges by introducing solutions from other fields, but also by improving well-known methods:
- Shorter production lines, reducing the movement of the tiles.
- Use of high plasticity raw materials, though its high cost may be a limitation.
- Pressing optimized particle size distribution formulas, thus improving green mechanical strength and minimizing losses.
- Use of additives, especially created and developed for large tiles.
It’s true that there is no single solution to all these problems, but different approaches may bring the best alternative regarding cost/performance.