2016 Development of Digital Ceramic Printing in China: A CEO’s Perspective

Ron Gilboa
Feb 22, 2016

InfoTrends has been tracking the ceramic tile industry’s adoption of digital printing technology for several years. China is the primary producer of ceramic tiles on a worldwide basis. According to an industry review by the China Building Ceramics & Sanitaryware Association, there are now over 3,600 ceramic tile production lines in operation in China in just under 1,500 facilities. With about 12 billion square meters produced worldwide 2014/2015 this market is estimated to grow at about 3% in subsequent years. Asia-Pacific region accounts for the majority (70%) of the total most is produced in China.

This market was destined to take advantage of the benefits inherent to digital printing technologies such as reduced make ready, design latitude, timely manufacturing and cost reduction. Spearheading these efforts are companies such as Xaar and Fuji Dimatix and few others. These companies, along with ceramic ink manufacturers, developed by a range of ceramic inks that meet the unique characteristics needed for inkjet printing. The initial success in Europe naturally spread to the Chinese market as well which is the focus of this blog.

We had the privilege of sitting down for an interview with Stella Hu, CEO of Shanghai Teckwin Technology Development Co. Ltd., a leading Chinese supplier digital printing technologies. This interview provided an unique perspective on the current market status and future expectations for the digital ceramics printing in China.

Stella Hu, CEO, Shanghai Teckwin Technology Development Co., Ltd

Stella Hu, CEO, Shanghai Teckwin Technology Development Co., Ltd

In 1994, Stella set up a successful print shop in Shanghai that offered top-quality local services. Compromising on quality was never an option, so the company ran top-of-the-line VUTEk and Scitex machines. At that time, there were very few local manufacturers of wide format printers. Stella spent the next 6 years studying the machines and developing applications.

Once Stella had fully experienced the fun of digital printing with extensive applications, she set her sights on developing a new brand of digital inkjet solutions based on her insights on industry and client needs. She launched Shanghai Teckwin Technology Development Co., Ltd. in 2001. The Shanghai-based company developed and introduced its first wide format solvent printer in 2002, and has since continued with product innovations. The company now offers digital inkjet ceramic printers, grand format solvent UV flatbeds, and roll-to-roll inkjet printing systems for graphics and industrial applications.

During our interview, Mrs. Hu offered her perspective on digital printing within the Chinese ceramic tile market.

Q: When did digital printing on ceramic tiles emerge in China and how has digital ceramic inkjet technology changed the ceramic printing industry?

A: The market for digital printing in China emerged in 2010. Since that time, the market has been evolving with innovative  technologies from international and local equipment manufacturers. After more than 5 years of developments, I estimate that this market—which started at zero—now accounts for over 3,500 active digital printing units. By the end of 2015, the Asia-Pacific region represented 70% of the total global ceramic printing industry. During 2015, about 600 digital ceramic inkjet printers were manufactured in China. Of these, about 40 units were exported overseas to markets like India and the pacific while the remainder were sold locally. The digital printing for ceramics market has become increasingly competitive, and a number of vendors are competing for market share on a domestic and international basis.

Q: Which brands are considered leaders in the Chinese digital ceramics market?

A: Competition has mainly been between 7 international ceramic inkjet brands (EFI Creataprint, Durst, KeraJet, Porjecta, Sacmi, System, Tecno Ferrarri) and 5 Chinese brands (Teckwin, Flora, Hope, Meijjia, King Tao). Brands like System, Kerajet, and Teckwin are currently experiencing success in the Chinese market.

Among all the ceramic ink brands, Dowstone and Foshan Sanshui Create-Tide have increased to account for over 50% of the total market in China. Meanwhile, the market share for brands like Esmalglass-Itaca Group and Torrecid Group has declined. In the past, these brands had represented as much as 20% of China’s total market. A few ceramic inkjet printer brands and suppliers exited the market last year, so the competition is undeniably stiff.

Q: What are the primary challenges after several years of development?

AThe competition for ceramic inkjet printers has become quite fierce as the market has matured. Furthermore, technological limitations as well as product similarities make it difficult for some manufacturers to pick the product that best suits their needs. European brands that historically had a premium value associated with them, are now being forced to compete with other brands based on price rather than features and benefits. During 2015, the average price for a ceramic inkjet printer dropped 20%, and this follows a 15% price erosion in 2014. Over 40% of ceramic tile lines shut down production in 2014, and ceramic ink consumption dropped as well in the previous year due to over capacity and a downturn in China’s real estate market. As a result, we expect the ceramic inkjet business to remain extremely competitive as we enter 2016.

Q: Can you discuss any highlights that occurred in ceramic digital printing during 2015?

A: During 2015, a significant technological breakthrough came in the form of color penetrated porcelain tile. The makeup of porcelain tile material is different than that of typical ceramic tile, so the digital inks used in this process must meet specific production requirements. Color penetrated porcelain tiles originated in Europe, but technological challenges and material science limitations made the resulting solutions slower and more expensive. Some of China’s glaze manufacturers have overcome these technological barriers and have begun to test-produce color-penetrated porcelain tiles. These products will likely be formally introduced in the near future.

Q: What are your thoughts about the direction of China’s digital ceramic printing industry market in 2016?

AChina’s real estate market is declining, and this is having a dramatic impact on the ceramic printing market. Demand is low in the real estate market, and this will have a detrimental effect on demand within the tile market. Demand for ceramic inkjet printing may drop to 700 million square meters or more. Demand for ceramic inkjet printers themselves may increase, but ink consumption is not expected to follow suit. The ceramic manufacturing market in China is suffering from an overcapacity of ceramic inkjet printers as well as some technological barriers. The end result of this will be a slowdown in demand. Only about 300 to 400 units are expected to be sold during the whole of 2016, but this number might increase if we see any further breakthroughs in color-penetrated porcelain tile.  This will have a downward effect on pricing and competition will remain fierce.

Q: Based on the current market situation and the existing challenges, what are your thoughts about the future?

A: Different brands have made various developments. Some models offer 8 color bars, double belt layers, and auto purging. These developments are designed to improve the productivity and flexibility of the printing systems. Several vendors are serving the industry with innovative printheads, and the leaders are Xaar and Fuji Dimatix. Xaar has launched its GS40, which covers 6 to 160PL drop sizes to accommodate most ceramic tile printing applications. Meanwhile, Fuji Dimatix’s StarFire SG1024/SC device has attracted market attention due to its stronger fire frequency (up to 50 KHz) and a suitability for rustic tile. We also expect new developments to the StarFire product line, which will include a new head capable of printing on jade, marble, and polished tile.

Brands such as Toshiba, Seiko Instruments, and Konica Minolta have their own features, but many users are reluctant to make the switch to alternative systems or printheads. The real breakthrough is anchored in workflow solutions. Suppliers must integrate their functions to provide an optimized workflow solution that incorporates improved color management, efficient alignment, and improved color gamut for consumers. Such developments will require a close cooperation between the machines, the ink suppliers, and the end-users to generate improved efficiency, reduced errors, less waste, and improved time to market.

In addition to a superior workflow solution, inks will play a critical role in terms of differentiation. Developments in ink formulation such as anti-slip ink, antibiosis, fluorescence, matte, and white inks might help increase margins for ink suppliers and ceramic factories.

To put it simply, innovations will pave the way to the market of the future!

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