Ever since I attained my first position as an architectural journalist, back in 1981, I have been fascinated by how construction materials and components are made. In fact, looking back, my focus has always been more on the materials and processes than the design concepts and finished buildings.
It’s hard to know where this geek tendency comes from. I was not the kind of child who was always tinkering with broken bicycles or, later, motorbikes, unlike so many of my friends. I did play with Lego and Meccano, but not with the scientific zeal and engineering prowess of my brother, Chris. And a degree in English and American Studies hardly pointed to a career involving spanners and grease guns.
However, once I was afforded privileged access to building material factories, I was completely hooked. While other journalists were happy to pick up the press kit and move on the bar and buffet, I was always back in the factory with the production manager, learning about presses, routers, kilns, lathes and hydraulics.
And the ceramic tile industry has been a very fertile breeding ground for my inner geek. Over the past 30+ years I have seen the tile industry transformed from a semi-automatic neo-artisan sector into the hi-tech industry of today. I have toured the first factories to use monocottura (single firing), monoporosa (dense body single firing), Rotorcolor rotary décoration, atomised porcelain dust and, latterly, digital ink jet printing technology.
I have marvelled at ball mills, atomisers, lances, cyclones, power co-generation systems and digital surface inspection. I have sat back transfixed by the balletic beauty of laser-guided kiln cars and pallet stacking robots; and watched awe-stuck at the speed and precision of rectifying lines and polishing stations.
And the progressive technical evolution of ceramic tile manufacturing shows no sign of slowing down. In the past few years the latest step-change has been the development of continuous compaction, where rollers – rather than moulds and presses – compress the porcelain dust to make today’s ultra-large dense porcelain slabs or, as our colleagues from the USA now term them, gauged porcelain panels.
Initially, two of the giant’s of tile manufacturing technology: Sacmi and Siti B&T led the way. Sacmi, first with Continua and now Continua+, developed an innovative compaction technology that broke through productivity barriers for large size tiles.
Continua+ allows the manufacture of porcelain slabs and tiles in a wide range of sizes and thicknesses, decorated both on the surface and in-body, at far higher output rates than those attainable with traditional processes.
Sacmi offers Continua+ lines with four-colour powder-based digital decoration systems; and ‘on the move’ tile cutting systems. At its core, Continua+ is a continuous compactor that allows manufacturers to form slabs that have a strength and density even greater than those attainable via traditional pressing. Compaction occurs by way of two very stiff motor-driven belts. The powder is deposited on the lower belt and carried inside the machine where the combined action of the two belts with the two compaction rollers allows forming. Non-deformable containment buffers limit lateral movement.
The cutting machine incorporated into the line allows manufacturers to produce a full range of sizes simply by adjusting a few settings. Iris, Ariostea, Graniti Fiandre, Co-Operativa Imola, Iris, Fincibec, RAK, Nord Ceram and Steuler are just some of the leading manufacturers that use this technology.
Until recently, the main rival was Supera by Siti B&T. Supera is also highly flexible and versatile in terms of thicknesses (from 5 to 25mm) and Supera’s stats are impressive. The average daily production capacity of each line is around 9,500 sq. metres, while the Start & Stop on-demand hydraulic power generator reduces energy consumption by up to 30%. At the same time, the line’s versatility enables it to handle up to 10 surface textures at the same time.
Rather than just a pressing technology for large-size tiles and panels, Supera is the heart of a complete production line consisting of cutting-edge technological solutions. It is highly flexible and is used to produce ceramic slabs up to 1,200 by 3,600mm; and their submultiples.
As a result of these technologies, thin, large porcelain slabs – which can be used to cover all manner of surfaces including worktops and furnishings – are now widely available in sizes up to 1,600 by 3,200mm from companies like Floor Gres, Fondovalle, Caesar, AVA, Casamood, Flaviker, Floor Gres, La Fabbrica, Leonardo and Mirage.
The latest player in this cutting-edge market is another giant in the world of ceramic production plant; System. System’s Lamgea is a mouldless press, capable of manufacturing slabs up to 4,800 by 1,600mm using standard atomized porcelain powders. It is possible to create any effect on the slabs, even structured surfaces with a relief up to 2mm, digital decorations and 3D effects. Since the belt slides on the press, users can create different structures on a 16m long slab surface. This means that three concurrently-produced slabs, each 4,800 by 1,600mm, can each have different designs.
Lamgea is designed to reach a force of 30,000 tonnes and can produce panels such as 1,600 by 3,200mm or 1,200 by 2,400mm, for instance. These slabs can be from 3 to 20mm thick.
Each Lamgea plant is controlled using Copilot touch screens that have an intuitive interface for controlling the day-to-day production process of the line and signalling any necessary maintenance work in advance.
For manufacturers seeking a complete turn-key solution, Lamgea can be paired with a high definition (400 dpi) Creadigit BS digital printing system.
This system is already finding European and international customers. For instance Gold Medal, the Chinese company specialised in the production of high quality glazed ceramics, marbles and tiles, is currently installing this system in the Guangdong Gold Medal Ceramics factory at Foshan on the southern coast of China.
System China, will be working closely with Gold Medal’s staff in the design phases of the plant and during the installation, start-up and training processes, with the objective of transferring the skills that will enable the factory technical staff to become totally autonomous in the management of the technological systems.
A new post by Joe Simpson, Diary of a Tile Addict, April 2017.