Factory Visit: Refin porcelain tile plant
What: Refin porcelain tile plant
Where: Casalgrande, Italy
Skeuomorphic’ is a word one rarely gets the opportunity to use, but it applies fully here. Meaning ‘an ornament or design on an object copied from the form of that object when made of other materials or methods,’ the technique underpins Italian porcelain tiles firm Refin’s attempt to define its own USP in a highly competitive global tiling market. With an annual turnover of almost €70m, and part of the €0.5bn Concorde Group, the firm is looking to increase its market share with some interesting takes on its new tiling ranges, involving the digitisation of nature. ‘We’re photographing natural materials like stone and wood and using digital scanning techniques to create a new product,’ says Paolo Cesana, Refin marketing and communications director. ‘We don’t just copy, but study a grain or pattern and then reinterpret it our own way,’ he says.
This means that for something like French Bourgogne stone, Refin will visit a quarry and photograph a whole range of stone grains, scan and then manipulate them to generate a dozen or so hybrids that will go on to form a porcelain tile range. Creating some ranges has led to some interesting collaborations with local artisans. Product manager Luisa Grazia, creative head of the firm’s R&D laboratory, spends some of her time working with craftsmen to have them create real timber flooring panels using local techniques, that will be photographed, digitised and undergo the same manipulation process. This final stage allows the firm to change tone and shade, add detail and grain and put its stamp on it, producing its ‘Mansion’ tile. Its latest range ‘Barrique’ takes the technique even further. ‘Tiles are designed using photographs of the insides of cognac barrels,’ says Grazia. ‘Each plank is one barrel stave blown up to huge proportions, scratched and has colour added. It has a fantastic grain, derived from the dark staining due to the crystallisation of sugars on the sides.’ It exemplifies how the firm has become highly aware that, in a crowded market, it is not enough to produce tiles that look like natural materials, but must make them appear almost hyper-real.
To develop its brand identity, Refin eschewed traditional trend analysis and market intelligence techniques and worked instead with high profile designers to produce exclusive ranges that are highly styled or geometric. The firm designed a tile with Karim Rashid, and its commissioning of designer Massimiliano Adami has produced the trendily vampish ‘Terraviva’ – a dark tile whose resin cracks can be backlit to simulate cracked, cooling volcanic magma. And it recently collaborated with Milan design firm Studio FM, which has produced its ‘Frame’ range of ‘Majolica’, and ‘Geometric’ patterns blown up to brobdingnagian scale, giving both a contemporary, interchangeable twist.
None of this could be done without the technology that allows the individual tiles to be created on the same production line, all at industrial speed.
‘The technology to change the faces of all the tiles during production has only come into being on an industrial scale in the last three years,’ says Cesana. ‘With the traditional Rotocolour system alone, it simply wouldn’t be possible.’ He adds that it has meant a significant financial commitment from Refin – modernising the six production lines at its plant has involved an investment of over €8m in new technologies. But he feels it’s worth it to bring the design potential it can free up to market.
‘Most ceramic factories have digital printing machines, but all they use it for is to copy materials,’ he concludes. ‘We’d like to think that we’re approaching it in a different, more innovative and imaginative way.’
1. Sustainable production
Refin was founded in 1962 and remains a family-led company. Its factory is 1.4ha in size, contains six production lines and turns out more than 20,000m2 of tiles per day from its four industrial kilns. Over 80% of the factory’s output is exported, mainly to Europe and North America. According to marketing director Paolo Cesana, the firm has made sustainability a priority – not only does it use recycled glass in its tiles, predominantly from the screens of old cathode ray tubes from TVs – but it has solar photovoltaics powering the firm’s offices, has heat exchangers on the kilns (pictured right) and recycles nearly all the water that it uses in the water-intensive production process. As part of the business’s modernisation drive to produce bespoke tile ranges, the firm has invested millions of euros in digital production technology. Aside from the industrial inkjet printers, the R&D laboratory has acquired innovative technologies that allow the high levels of photographic detail that the digital production process requires – here a typical imaging of a stone tile may use about 1.5GB of memory.
2. Mixing and milling
Raw materials for the porcelain mix are stored in huge silos on site. Clays are predominantly sourced from Italy, the Ukraine and Germany, with sand from Sardinia and feldspar from Turkey. This last additive reduces the melting point of the sand from around 1500ºC to about 1200ºC, reducing energy consumption. The mix is then milled with water in a huge rotating silo to create a homogeneous aqueous suspension which is dropped through a silo and spray dried. This mix, with an optimum granularity for pressing, is then sent to the pressing machines by conveyor belt.
3. Pressing and drying
There are six production lines in the factory, each with its own press. They are designed to press all the sizes currently available in the range – from 300mm by 300mm to 1.5m by 750mm. The pressing machine is one of the most powerful available and is able to exert a force of 700 tonnes. Once tiles have been pressed, they are sent to a dryer to eliminate the final 5% of water still held within them; any moisture can cause tiles to blow in the firing process. The dryers are fed with hot air extracted from the kilns, saving up to 10% in methane use.
Once dried, tiles are decorated. Tile ranges will undergo both a Rotocolour and a digital inkjet process, using one of the largest printers on the market, to give them the extra grain and depth as necessary. Colours are produced by the use of oxides and magnesium. Glass can be sprayed onto the tile at the end of the process to protect the colours once fired.
Decorated tiles are then passed through the kiln for around four hours. Kilns are computer controlled, saving up to 20% electricity due to the electronics that manage the fan engines, and 10% on gas due to heat recovery – the hot air at the end of the kiln has been reintroduced to the burners at the front. Once fired, tiles can undergo rectification, where they can be cut to create other sizes. After passing through a quality control machine that rejects defective tiles, they are moved to the packing line for sorting and final packaging.