By Olivia Cahoon
Wide format flatbed printers print to a variety of substrates beyond traditional materials including ceramics, tile, and glass. Industries using decorative ceramic pieces, like home and commercial décor, are excited about the possibilities of digital printing technology. It offers low runs produced cost effectively with print quality that meets the standards of traditional methods.
Dedicated digital ceramic printers are also available for ceramic printing but target industrial applications for manufacturing. For print service providers (PSPs), wide format flatbed printers are available as an alternative printing method for ceramics.
Above: Examples of ceramic tile decoration from EFI.
Decorated tiles are printed with traditional or digital methods. Traditional ceramic printing methods are intended for high-volume runs with little customization. For example, rotogravure analog presses can only change the design by stopping the machine, exchanging the cylinders, and adding additional touchpoints, says Raimar Kuhnen-Burger, regional marketing manager, EFI Industrial Printing.
Digital printing offers a non-contact solution for decorating ceramics including tile and glass. It provides high-quality output, control, reduced tile breakage, and minimization of repeat patterns. “A digital machine can change the design on the fly and produce in a cost-effective manner even at low volumes,” explains Kuhnen-Burger. Industrial-level, single-pass inkjet printing almost reaches the volume of rotogravure—pushing digital productivity to new heights.
Ceramic printing requests stem from industries that require customization. In today’s industrial sectors, designs change quickly, and manufacturers need to meet this demand. By implementing digital technologies, Kuhnen-Burger says manufacturers cost-effectively produce even lower volumes while reducing turnaround time and stock. “We also see a clear movement in the printing industry towards individualization. This can only be achieved with digital printing.”
Industries seeking customized ceramics include artists, home and commercial décor, and wall and floor manufacturers. Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, says many print providers use digital devices to add CMYK graphics and simulated embossing and textural effects, which provide value and appeal to a range of custom and boutique products. “This typically involves small runs or one-offs to create truly unique one-of-a-kind offerings,” he adds.
With the ability to print directly onto tile and glass, PSPs offer unique products with greater profitability. Jim Peterson, COO/founding partner, Vanguard Digital Printing Systems, offers, “PSPs are finding more creative ways to meet demands. Moreover, end users are finding more creative ways to market their brands and rely on flatbed printers to accomplish this.”
Wide Format Flatbed Devices
Flatbed printers output on a variety of materials like acrylic, ceramic, leather, plastic, and wood. A full-size flatbed UV printer between 4×8 and 5×10 feet allows for a variety of work on an abundance of media in addition to tile and glass—diversifying overall product offerings to clients, suggests Peterson.
Working with a smaller flatbed UV printer can limit the PSP’s work and compatible media sizes. “In addition to other media, for high-volume tile and glass jobs a larger table allows clients to image multiple pieces rather than one at a time,” adds Peterson.
Vanguard offers the VK300D UV digital printer with a 5×10-foot print width. It handles a variety of materials including acrylic, brick, glass, porcelain, and stone. With eight printheads, it prints up to 40 boards per hour with a four-inch thick print capability.
According to Roberts, some flatbed UV printers use fixtures, which lock the product into a specific spot for printing. This enables the user to control how and where the graphics are produced in addition to keeping ceramics in place.
The Roland VersaUV LEJ-640FT features a 64×98-inch print bed capable of printing to glass and tile. It runs heavy, rigid materials up to six inches thick and weighing up to 220 pounds. The printer utilizes CMYK, white, and clear coat ink to offer special effects including textures and simulated embossing.
Flatbed printers also allow PSPs to produce several tiles at one time, says Javier Mahmoud, VP of sales and marketing, CET Color. He believes adhesion and curing is the first consideration to implementing a wide format flatbed device for ceramic printing. “If these two things cannot be done then price point, material versatility, efficiency, or speed does not matter.”
CET Color’s K2-1000 UV flatbed printer uses UV LED curing lamps to instantly cure UV ink on both the left and right pass. Its combination of Kyocera printheads, inks, and UV LED curing technology outputs up to 31 boards per hour with two printhead rows.
Today’s digital technology allows several flatbed UV printers to print much more than just ceramics. Rather than selecting a dedicated ceramic printer, Peterson believes a PSP should implement a wide format flatbed suitable for ceramic printing when a client wants to expand their product offering and increase profitability. “With this in mind, our clients find the need for a dedicated ceramic UV printer is greatly minimized if not eliminated.”
Peterson encourages clients to consider their overall product mix along with products and markets they would someday like to attain. “Flatbed UV printers are extremely diverse and unless high volumes and contractual commitments are in place, we caution clients on purchasing a dedicated machine for any particular type of work.”
Dedicated Ceramic Printers
Successful digital adoption in the ceramic market creates opportunity for manufacturing companies and industrial ceramic applications. For high-quality manufacturing, businesses opt for a dedicated ceramic printer. They allow versatility and produce batches with individual unique tile pieces.
“While a flatbed device might be a good match for lower volume prints, industrial applications need higher volume and tight integration into the production process,” says Kuhnen-Burger. He believes this is only possible by using single-pass technology, which produces quicker results compared to multi-pass printing.
EFI’s Cretaprint industrial single-pass ceramic printers print up to 70 linear meters and up to 1.8 meters wide. According to Kuhnen-Burger, this gives real industrial throughput for tile manufacturing plants. The EFI Cretaprint D4 features 12 printing bars for ceramic printing and special finishes like white, reactive, luster, matte, and glossy. It prints up to 60 meters per minute (m/min) and a Double Tile Printing feature allows simultaneous printing of two tiles of different formats and with varying designs.
Several dedicated ceramic printers offer special effects for ceramic decoration. For example, Durst Group’s Gamma XD Series offers special effects including luster, glossy, matte, white, metallic, and glue. The eight-color inkjet ceramic printer offers a maximum printing width of 1,404 millimeters (mm) and speeds up to 76 m/min. It uses Digital Material printhead technology and jets large amounts of digital ceramic material and glue inks.
Dip-Tech, a Ferro Company manufactures the Nera D series of printers specifically designed for printing onto glass. A versatile printing carriage allows for printing different applications without changing ink tanks or making other setup changes. Up to 12 ink channels offer production flexibility, with high-resolution printing up to 1,410 dpi.
Dedicated ceramic presses also create a variety of tile designs with unlimited glazes, colors, and dry powders. The KERAjet S7 prints with ceramic pigments, soluble salts, solid applications, glazes, and UVI inks. It features an 1,800 mm print width and handles tiles up to 46 mm thick. It prints up to 90 m/min with a resolution of up to 1,200 dpi.
Both dedicated ceramic printers and wide format flatbed devices offer the print width capability for ceramics. As a dedicated solution, ceramic printers are an investment for print providers that intend to offer ceramic-only applications. Wide format flatbed devices are more suitable for PSPs looking to add ceramic decoration to existing offerings.
Most wide format flatbed devices for ceramic printing use UV or UV LED ink for its ability to bond to a variety of surfaces. UV methods include organic ink that is fixed and dried to the glass by UV lamps.
According to Roberts, UV is the best method available for printing to ceramics. “Customers appreciate the durability and longevity of graphics, as well as gloss, white, and primer capabilities.”
UV printers offer the ability to print CMYK and white—if needed—saving in extra steps and possible human error, says Mahmoud. “We see requests for ceramics for drink coaster products and school logos,” he adds. UV methods are efficient for small runs and customized orders.
Some UV ink sets may not provide the necessary level of adhesion and require adhesion promoters. Adhesion promoters enhance ink and coatings on difficult substrates like ceramics and are applied by hand or with an automated system. The use of adhesion promoters enhances ink and coating adhesion and ensures ink remains on the substrate.
Because there are multiple types of ceramic tiles and finishes, Roberts believes that adhesion promoters are crucial. “While pre-manufactured tiles may not require an adhesion promoter, we have found that on fired or glazed tiles, the use of an adhesion promoter is often necessary to ensure durability that’s acceptable to the end user. The end user always dictates the acceptable level of durability and the PSP must be able to meet the user’s expectations and requirements.”
Mahmoud believes adhesion promoters are not always necessary but depend on the project and ceramic type. “There are too many variables and tile types to know if a promoter is needed. So far, the tiles we have done have not required any promoter.”
Aside from UV printing, other ceramic printing methods are available with the use of special ceramic inks. Kuhnen-Burger says EFI’s Cretaprint ceramic printers don’t use UV inks but instead print with special ceramic inks on the raw tile as part of the tile production process. “Ceramic print does not necessarily make use of the CMYK color scheme, instead EFI provides an ink ecosystem that includes dedicated ceramic inks and special effects,” he offers. With EFI’s ceramic printing method, adhesion promoters are not required.
Dip-Tech also sells an alternative printing method for ceramics. Dip-Tech Digital Ceramic inks are fused into the glass during the tempering or annealing process for unlimited colors and designs. The formula results in glass that can be laminated, bent, or double glazed. Dip-Tech ceramic inks are fully recyclable and resistant to scratching, UV light, and weather for outdoor use.
Digital ceramic printing offers high-quality output and a non-contact solution for decorating ceramics like tile and glass. “Advancements in image quality transform the flatbed UV marketplace, providing the opportunity to produce a high-quality print to tile and glass,” shares Peterson.
Several options are available for ceramic manufacturers and PSPs when it comes to selecting a digital ceramic printer. Dedicated digital ceramic printers offer printed ceramics with long-term use and high-quality manufacturing while wide format flatbed printers are more suitable for PSPs seeking new markets. Regardless of the method selected, digital printers offer high-quality output and customization for decorated ceramic pieces.
May2018, Digital Output