The growing importance of large-size ceramic panels and slabs | by Andrea Serri

As part of an ongoing process of technological and engineering development, 2018 has seen the start-up of a number of new plants for the production of large-size ceramic panels and slabs. This new technology complements the other well-established manufacturing processes and offers fresh business potential for the Italian tile industry.

The origins of this trend date back a number of years. A commitment to invest a significant share of annual revenues in technological innovation and new plants has been a constant throughout the Italian ceramic industry’s history. Use of the latest plant and machinery has always been one of the industry’s key strengths, prompting it to maintain investment shares of around 5% even in difficult years such as 2008 and 2009. But the kind of development we have seen since 2015 is an entirely new phenomenon, particularly in terms of volumes given that investments totalled 7.4% of turnover in 2016 and are estimated to have grown to almost double figures in 2017. This trend has been driven partly by the Industry 4.0 incentives introduced by Italy’s Minister of Economic Development Carlo Calenda – which will continue to exert an effect throughout the current year – and partly by the continued development of technology for the production of large ceramic tiles and panels, combining manufacturing flexibility with the opening of new market segments.

As demonstrated by trends in exports and the manufacturing internationalisation process, the Italian ceramic industry has always sold its products to the world’s most affluent regions while also catering for high-end markets in developing countries. These markets of consumers and professional users demand not only aesthetic excellence but also the highest levels of customisation and the possibility of using ceramic tile in many different applications: interiors and exteriors; horizontal and vertical surfaces; and residential and other kinds of spaces. While maintaining the characteristics of all other well-established ceramic processes, panel and slab production technology allows for fairly rapid thickness changes during the pressing stage and is capable of producing continuous surfaces, a quality that has proved particularly popular with architects.

This production versatility is matched by the high level of quality of these products. Their characteristics of strength, hygiene, durability and resistance to wear, chemicals, stresses, fire and the elements make them popular for a wide range of building industry applications, as demonstrated by the enormous numbers of projects in which they have been used all over the world. Thanks to these characteristics, the use of large ceramic panels and slabs has been successfully extended to fields such as interior design, where Italian tiles are already widely used for bathroom and kitchen countertops, hi-tech table surfaces, cupboard doors and even furnishing accessories. These new business segments display fresh potential for growth even in mature markets such as Europe and North America.

February 2018