Both internationally and in Australia, advances in technology are driving significant changes within the tile industry, two partners of a Melbourne based tile distribution firm say.

EARP Bros partners Luca Costanza and Andrew Gordon outlined a number of developments which are affecting both the industry and the way tiles are being used – most of which are being driven by technical advances in manufacturing processes.

These are as follows:

(1) Greener Products.

This is not specifically related to technology, but Gordon and Costanza say growing awareness of the need for sustainable construction materials represents one of the biggest driving forces behind the tile industry at the moment.

Costanza says quality tiles offer a number of environmental benefits, including durability, the absence of any need to cut down trees (as opposed to timber), recyclability and low post-installation maintenance requirements (eliminating, for example, the need to use volatile organic compounds).

He says key success factors in delivering sustainable products include understanding how raw materials are being sourced, sources of energy used in manufacturing, avoiding the release of harmful substances into the environment, use of recycled packaging, labour conditions within the manufacturing process and treatment of the product after it is finished.

Gordon says EARP’s supplier in Spain, for example, operates with very few emissions and has recycling systems in place to reuse heat energy that comes off the manufacturing process as well as water used in manufacturing, while the company’s products were recycled for use as bricks at the end of their useful life.

(2) Tiles which look like other products.

Gordon says one of the most significant trends in tiles revolves around manufacturing process improvements which have enabled the production high-quality replicas of natural surfaces such as timber, marble, bluestone and other products.

He says this allows for porcelain equivalents which provide a similar look and feel to other natural materials while often delivering better performance, greater durability and less environmental impact. Porcelain equivalents of marble, for example, don’t stain, scratch or involve extraction of marble from the ground. Those designed to resemble timber, meanwhile, don’t swell with moisture, can be slip-resistant, do not involve felling of trees and involve negligible maintenance.

Gordon says this is creating a number of possibilities, such as having a timber look and feel in the bathroom which is not otherwise possible under current Australian standards as timber is not waterproof.

“If you wanted to put merbau timber around a pool, for example, that’s not compliant” he said. “We can give you a sustainable slip resistant product that complies with the Australian standards that looks like timber but has no maintenance cost.”

Floor tiles which look like timber

Floor tiles which look like timber

3) Better Quality Printing and Decoration

Costanza says ink-jet printing technology involving designs being processed by computer and transmitted to the printer has enabled much greater accuracy in terms of printing designs onto the tile as well as less repetition in terms of patterns.

In addition to delivering better quality output in terms of decoration on regular tiles, improvements in this area have been a key driving factor behind the development of porcelain equivalents. Ten years ago, for example, patterns printed onto a tile equivalent of marble were repetitive and the end user could tell it was a tile, Costanza says. Not so nowadays, where some repetition remains but the look and feel is more authentic.

4) Bigger, Thinner Lighter.

Tiles are also changing in terms of their size, shape and weight.

Whereas size was once limited by restrictions regarding the ability to make products and bake them in an oven while retaining their shape, Gordon says better technology means today consumers can buy 1200 by 600 or 1200 by 1200 tiles. As evidence, he showcased a tile EARP has which measures three metres by one metre made with a machine that presses a continuous layer of porcelain under 15 tonnes of weight, laser cut into shape and backed by fibreglass.

He says tiles are also becoming thinner, with thinner tiles in turn being more commonly used in wall applications as they enable tiling over existing surfaces without significant reduction in room size. Moreover, thinner tiles are lighter (3.5 millimetre porcelain tiles weigh around 7.6 kilograms per square metre against 26 kilograms for 10 millimetre tiles), saving on transport costs and laying time.

“If you wanted to renovate your bathroom and you have got a tiled wall, you could put this (tile) straight over the top” Gordon said. “You just take your fittings off, put that (tile) on and put your fittings back on because it’s only three millimetres thick. Without that, you need to remove all your tiles, throw them away, re-sheet the wall with plaster, waterproof and then re-tile.”

5) Used in more places

Finally, tiles in Australia are now being used in more places, with Costanza and Gordon saying they are becoming increasingly popular in shopping centres in place of terrazzo as well as restaurants and even ship building refurbishments.

In the house, meanwhile, tiling of non-traditional areas such as bedrooms and living rooms is becoming more common. In the kitchen, too, tiles are finding less traditional applications in bench tops and carpentry.

Overall, Gordon is optimistic about the future.

“There are desirable alternatives for so many other types of products now and architects and specifiers and starting to recognise that” he said. “As we are getting to these larger products, it’s (tile equivalent uses) even more desirable.”