Continua, Supera and, now, Lamgea, the continuous pressing systems developed by three of the biggest names in tile production, Sacmi, Siti B&T and System, have revolutionised porcelain tile production and are starting to open up new areas of application for mega-format thin porcelain panels. Tile & Stone Journal’s Editor, Joe Simpson, evaluates this extraordinary technology and its massive market impact.
Over the past 30+ years the world’s tile industry transformed from a largely Eurocentric, semi-automatic, artisanal activity into the truly global hi-tech industry it is today.
Production technology has advanced in a series of significant leaps, including monocottura (single firing), monoporosa (dense body single firing), Rotorcolor rotary décor, atomised porcelain body prep and, latterly, digital ink jet printing technology.
Manufacturers have fought an escalating manufacturing arms race based on ball mills, atomisers, lances, cyclones, power co-generation systems and digital surface inspection. The resulting low-labour factories offer the balletic beauty of laser-guided kiln cars and pallet stacking robots; or awe-inspiring, ultra-fast and precise rectifying lines and polishing stations.
The progressive technical evolution of ceramic tile manufacturing shows no sign of slowing down. In the past few years the latest step-change has been the development of continuous compaction, where rollers - rather than moulds and vertical ram presses - compress the porcelain dust to make today’s mega-format slabs or, as our colleagues in the USA now term them, gauged porcelain panels.
Two of the giant’s of tile manufacturing technology - Sacmi and Sit B&T - led the way. Sacmi, with first Continua and now Continua+ developed an innovative compaction technology that broke through productivity barriers for large size tiles.
Continua+ allows the manufacture of porcelain slabs and tiles in a wide range of sizes and thicknesses, decorated both on the surface and in-body, at far higher output rates than those attainable with traditional processes.
Sacmi offers Continua+ lines with powder-based digital decoration systems and ‘on the move’ tile cutting systems. At the heart of each Continua+ line is a continuous compactor that allows manufacturers to form slabs that have a strength and density even greater than those attainable via traditional pressing. Compaction occurs by way of two very stiff motor-driven belts. The powder is deposited on the lower belt and carried inside the machine where the combined action of the two belts with the two compaction rollers allows forming. Non-deformable containment buffers limit lateral movement. The cutting machine incorporated into the line allows manufacturers to produce a full range of sizes simply by adjusting a few settings.
Iris, Ariostea, Graniti Fiandre, Co-Operativa Imola, Iris, Fincibec, RAK, Nord Ceram and Steuler are just some of the leading manufacturers that use this technology.
Until recently, the main rival was Supera by Siti B&T. Supera is highly flexible and versatile in terms of thicknesses (from 5 to 25mm). This kit’s stats are impressive. The average daily production capacity of each line is around 9,500 sq. metres. The innovative Start & Stop on-demand hydraulic power generator reduces energy consumption by up to 30%. At the same time, the line’s versatility enables it to handle up to 10 surface textures at the same time.
Rather than just a pressing technology for large-size tiles and panels, Supera is the heart of a complete production line consisting of cutting-edge technological solutions. It is highly flexible and can produce ceramic slabs up to 1,200 by 3,600mm; and their submultiples.
Supera is equipped with three hydraulic pistons designed to guarantee uniform shaping on the edges and splitting of the panels to minimise deformation during pressing. A key feature of Supera is XXL Green Cut, a cutting machine for unfired ceramic slabs up to 4,000 by 1,350 mm equipped with a transverse and longitudinal row of disc cutting units to cut the slabs in both directions and at positions that can be set via the touch-screen control unit.
As a result of these technologies, thin, large porcelain slabs - which can be used to cover all manner of surfaces including worktops and furnishings - are now available in sizes up to 1,600 by 3,200mm from companies like Floor Gres, Fondovalle, Caesar, AVA, Casamood, Flaviker, Floor Gres, La Fabbrica, Leonardo and Mirage.
The latest player in this cutting-edge market is another giant in the world of ceramic production plant; System. Developed by System’s Lamina division; Lamgea is a mouldless press, capable of manufacturing slabs up to 4,800 by 1,600mm using standard atomized porcelain powders. It is possible to create any effect on the slabs, even structured surfaces with a relief up to 2mm, digital decorations and 3D effects.
Since the belt slides on the press, users can create different structures on a slab surface up to 16 metres long. This means that three concurrently produced slabs, each 4,800 by 1,600mm, can each look completely different.
Lamgea is billed as a revolutionary way of creating ceramic products, without moulds and with no format limits. A key selling point is the flexibility regarding thickness: from 3 to 30mm, depending on the product’s intended use.
So Lamgea proposes that tile companies, using a single a large slab, can produce all the sizes required, in any thicknesses required. The secret is Lamgea’s ability to ‘green’ cut the unfired slabs, measuring up to 4,800 by 1,600mm, into the desired sub-formats. Manufacturers can also choose the thickness of the slabs depending on the intended use: floors, walls, worktops, furniture, architecture or interiors.
Lamgea claims to offer many benefits including thinner slabs that need less raw material, less firing energy and produce less waste. The resultant slabs are also lighter per sq. metre and thus easier to install. They are also easier to cut
As with Continua and Supera, the Lamgea system involves laying powder directly on the belt without special trolleys (single and multi-load), making the pressing process even easier.
Lamgea presses the material without a mould, meaning that the slab is free to expand, thereby releasing any internal tension which can otherwise lead to defects or failure during firing..
System claims that when a Lamgea slab comes out of the kiln, the shape is 100% regular without any gauge defects due to this perfect and uniform pressing method.
Lamgea produces a massive 50,000 tons of pressing power with a nominal force of 420 kg per sq. centimetre. This is transmitted by a rectangular hydraulic piston across the whole surface of the slab.
Lamgea also offers manufacturers exemplary production flexibility. Formats can be changed in just a few minutes using the proprietary software; while the upper belt can be changed in under one hour
Operating at up to 70 cycles per hour,each line has an astonishing theoretical maximum capacity of 13,000 sq.metre per day. But the more tangible result is constant, consistent, productivity without waste but using standard atomized powders.
Each Lamgea plant is controlled using Copilot touch screens that have an intuitive interface for controlling the day-to-day production process of the line and signalling any necessary maintenance work in advance.
For manufacturers seeking a complete turn-key solution, Lamgea can be paired with a high definition (400 dpi) Creadigit BS digital printing system
Systems claims that energy consumption is 0.1 Kw/h per sq. metre, and as the compaction system can accept powders with a standard moisture content of from 4 to 6%, less energy needed for drying.
In house design teams are also starting to exploit Lamgea’s aesthetic versatility. Manufacturers can create any effect on the slabs, even structured surfaces with a relief up to 2mm, digital decorations or 3D effects.
And this is not conjecture. There are already more than 20 Lamgea plants operating globally; and the last statistics available to TSJ showed that more than 35,000,000 sq. metres of tiles are already being made annually using Lamgea technology.
And adoption of this hi-tech system is far from being concentrated in Europe, as one might expect. For instance New Pearl, billed as the largest ceramic tile manufacturer in China, has selected Lamgea technology to enter the ultra large-format ceramic panel segment, aiming to become the main local producer of this type of product.
A Lamgea mouldless press will be installed later this year at one of New Pearl’s facilities in Foshan and will produce ceramic panels with sizes up to 1,600 by 3,200mm, in thicknesses from 6 to 20mm.
This investment is the latest evidence of New Pearl’s partnership with System. New Pearl has already invested in System’s digital decoration technology, with 40 Creadigit printers now operating in the Group’s factories in Guangdong and Jiangxi.
In India, another fast developing tile manufacturing zone, Simola Tiles is due to start up a Lamgea 22,000 ton mouldless press at its factory in Gujarat in November. The new plant will produce mega-format ceramic panels up to 1,200 by 2,400mm, in thicknesses from 6 to 20mm.
System has also supplied Simola Tiles with Creadigit XXL high-definition digital printing technology for 400 dpi decoration; while Rotocolor systems installed on the same line will further improve the aesthetic quality of new products.
The sophisticated ceramic surfaces produced using this cutting-edge technology will enable the Indian company to strengthen its position in the domestic market and also open up new opportunities for exports to Europe and the United States.
Another convert is Gold Medal, a Chinese company that specialises in the production of high quality glazed tiles. It has installed the Lamgea system in the Guangdong Gold Medal Ceramics factory at Foshan.
System China will take a key role in staff training, with the objective of transferring the skills that will enable the factory’s technical staff to become totally autonomous in the management of the Lamgea systems.
For tile distributors and retailers in the UK, this flood of investment into these three advanced production technologies will lead to greater product choice, particularly in porcelain tiles with modular formats, growing price competition; and ready availability of products for larger products or nationwide stock holding.
Innovations like book matched simulated marbles feature walls, one piece porcelain kitchen worktops, ultra thin porcelain veneers for furniture applications, no joint showers, digital photographic display panels, and new wave textured surfaces are taking what was one the humble tile into many new and exciting direction, and previously un-thought of applications.