In today’s world, it is obvious innovation is at an all time high. The technology driving the development of products is advancing at such a rapid speed there seems to be a continuous cycle of introductions in most markets.

In particular, the tile industry is vigorously working to inspire consumers with new floor collections that offer larger formats, more textured surfaces, unique shapes and eco-friendly qualities.

“It has been exciting to observe the changes in the tile industry over the past five years—specifically in terms of product innovation,” said Lori Kirk-Rolley, senior marketing director of Dal-Tile. “Overall, the industry has increased its use of sophisticated digital printing technologies, thus expanding the spectrum of colors and realistic graphics that can be achieved on a tile.”

New technologies, she added, “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. Technology in tile production has also come a long way in terms of sustainability. We continue to increase our use of pre- and post-consumer recycled content in our manufacturing process to develop a better, more sustainable product.”

Performance benefits

Kirk-Rolley went on to explain ceramic tile inherently offers many performance benefits. “While its fundamental manufacturing processes have not changed, advancements in technology have allowed us to further enhance and increase these performance benefits. For example, some Dal-Tile products are infused with Microban antimicrobial protection, which works continuously to fight the growth of stain-causing bacteria—keeping our ceramic tile cleaner between cleanings.”

Crossville has recently released an innovation that also offers performance benefits to consumers. “Crossville’s new Hydrotect coating is a significant innovation,” said Noah Chitty, director of technical services. “Hydrotect offers antimicrobial, easy cleaning or self-cleaning, and air purifying properties for the tile to which it is fired. It effectively kills odor-causing bacteria, significantly reduces dirt and oil accumulation, and rids the air of odors and mono-nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog.”

He said the applications for using tiles with this technology are vast—commercial kitchens, public restrooms, building exteriors, even residential use.

Chitty explained the coating is applied to the product during a second firing process after the tile is traditionally fired. “We brought in a new kiln for this purpose. The treatment is the latest generation developed by TOTO, and it is a hybrid photocatalyst comprised of titanium dioxide and antimicrobial metals that give the coating its exceptional properties.” (Editor’s note: Crossville and TOTO, a manufacturer of sanitary products and fixtures have had a working partnership in recent years where Crossville recycles TOTO’s pre-consumer waste into new porcelain tiles.)

Because Hydrotect is fired into the tile separately, he said it will not wash or wear off over time. Plus “it’s not visible, so a tile’s appearance is not altered. Likewise, the coating won’t affect the installation process. The tile installs normally, yet provides greater performance for the life of the product.”

Inkjet printing

Many manufacturers agree updates in inkjet printing have resulted in a flurry of floor tile innovations. “Research and investing is a given for our company,” said Rodolfo Panisi, CEO of StonePeak Ceramics. “Changes in production technology have been dramatic. Digital printing technology has made our industry’s changes and updates occur as frequently as your smartphone updates.”

Sean Cilona, director of marketing at Florida Tile, agrees inkjet printing has come a long way in recent years. “In the last five years, the inkjet technology has come to the market so quickly we are continuously updating new software, equipment and even entire production lines to keep up. This is also allowing us to continually push what we can do graphically, and it has really allowed us to create remarkably varied and natural-looking surfaces.”

Among Florida Tile’s latest innovations is the combination of its trademarked HDP (High Definition Porcelain) digital printing process with other glaze applications.

Cilona believes inkjet technology will continue to evolve—paving the way for even more sophisticated innovations. “It offers so many benefits over the traditional rotocolor design. The next step is just combining that with other processes and pushing the creative envelope on what can be done.”

Sharing similar thoughts, Kirk-Rolley also sees more to come with digital printing. “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.”

Also, she noted, 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.”

Bigger and thinner sizes

One very noticeable trend in the tile industry is the increasingly growing sizes of floor tiles as well as their minimizing thicknesses.

“The production of large panels—3x3-feet and larger—is the new trend in which our company is investing new resources in,” said Panisi. “The large-format tile is a new milestone for our industry.”

A few other companies have already started producing similar products, Panisi added, but “our technical department was able to take ownership of the idea and develop an ‘in-house’ technology that can improve the size, look and technical features of what currently exists today. Looking at an installation of a 5x5- or 5x10-foot porcelain tile floor, I am wondering why we are still producing 12x12- or 18x18-inch tiles.”

Ryan Fasan, technical director for Tile of Spain, agrees large, slim formats are hot right now. “There are a couple of companies that are pressing only in large format and cutting down for modular sizes. They are doing this for better color consistency. Bigger formats make sense for large-scale installations.”

He explained the Tile Council of North America (TCNA) is helping with the promotion of the slim tile program by developing standards. “TCNA and CTEF (Ceramic Tile Education Foundation) with their certified tile program are trying really hard to keep up with industry standards so we are not lagging a decade behind Europe and can accept this new product.”

The North American market is catching on to slim tile, Fasan added, noting at the American Institute of Architects show this year, a few Tile of Spain manufacturers displayed their slim tile lines and specifiers seemed interested. “It was the first time North Americans were looking at a relatively new innovation and grabbing on to it. It was great to see such a positive response.”

A leader among slim tile producers has been Tile of Spain-branded manufacturer Inalco. According to Fasan, the company only uses dry presses so it can put texture on its thin tile products.

Levantina, a leading Spanish natural stone producer, now produces large porcelain slabs, which it calls Techlam. “This is its first entry into the porcelain market,” said Fasan. “What’s interesting about Levantina is it is a slab company—all its infrastructure is set up for [producing Techlam].”

Other manufacturers, he explained, have to change their facilities. “[Porcelain slabs] have to be shipped and handled differently. Levantina is doing a good job supplying to the American market.”

According to Fasan, slim tile formats can provide cost savings for manufacturers—and ultimately end users. “Weight and shipping cost is a huge portion of the end product specification. The more product that can be packed and shipped, will be less of an expense.”

Wood-look porcelain

In addition to large, slim porcelain panels, tile that looks like wood is a popular request among consumers today. Paulo Pereira Jr., porcelain merchant at MS International (MSI), says large-sized wood planks seem to be leading production innovation during the past year.

“Wood planks are the fastest growing category inside our product portfolio, which is geared toward the residential market,” he said. “Customers have been mostly asking for additional options in wood planks and contemporary looking tiles in large rectangular size.”

Kirk-Rolley agrees wood-look porcelain is in high demand. “Hardwoods have an aesthetic design appeal, but are limited in application. Porcelain that realistically mimics the look of various types of hardwood allows for the beauty of wood with the long-lasting durability and ease of maintenance of porcelain tile. This provides unlimited application options, including high-traffic areas and rooms exposed to high moisture levels such as the kitchen and bathroom.”

Looking to the future

With the swift momentum of research and development in the tile industry, the options in flooring will only continue to grow, according to manufacturers. And inspiration for new product lines come from both internal brainstorming and customer input.

“I draw from everywhere, particularly my own interests, but I really love architecture and design,” said Cilona. “Interior design and architecture allow for a huge range of styles, and what we have seen lately is the continuation of clean lines and modern aesthetics, but also pulling in more traditional accents like patterns and textures. Tradeshows, magazines and blogs are pretty much a constant avenue of entertainment for me. Some people call it work, but I really enjoy it.”

StonePeak often turns to feedback from its customers for product inspiration. “We are fortunate to work with a lot of designers and architects, and they are always a great source of inspiration for us,” concluded Panisi. “New technologies make their dreams easier to achieve, and that is our mission.”