Ceramic tiles are part of some of the world's oldest architecture, evidence of the material's durability and timeless appeal. From the earliest days, tile has provided a medium for artists and architects to express a range of visual motifs. But in recent history, the industry has innovated in other ways.
"In the two decades of my career in the tile industry, the changes have been so vast that it's almost unbelievable," says Ryan Fasan, a consultant for Spanish industry association Tile of Spain. In recent decades, manufacturers have created a single-firing kiln production process for floor and wall tiles, and have moved from single-screen decorative printing, to roto-color printing, to today's inkjet printing techniques, which replicate a range of natural surfaces in high resolution. One of the biggest leaps has been in ceramic tile sizes, which have jumped from an average dimension of 8 inches square to one of 3 by 11 feet.
During this period, European manufacturers have held strong as the global leaders in production technology and innovation, with Spain and Italy at the forefront. "Both countries push the innovation machine forward in different ways," says Fasan. "The Italian industry makes a vast majority of the production machinery like presses and kilns, opening up the possibilities for increased technical capabilities, and the Spaniards represent most of the glaze and frit industry, creating added-value innovations and increased aesthetic options."
Both countries are global leaders in terms of energy and water conservation in production techniques and innovative technology and design solutions. In the past 20 years, the ceramic tile industry has tripled its production, yet has simultaneously reduced gaseous emissions by 75 percent of 1970s consumption levels. Manufacturers have also made leaps in recycled and recyclable materials, with some products today manufactured with up to 80 percent pre-consumer recycled material. Most producers also rely on a manufacturing process that recycles 100 percent of retained production water, resulting in a drastic reduction in water consumption.