Lea Ceramiche, Atlantic Link’s partner in providing thin porcelain tile (3mm) from Italy to the U.S. market, uses a multi-step production process where quality checks are applied to adhere to the company’s high standards.
Here is a summary of the steps involved in creating thin porcelain.
Step 1: Raw Materials Handling
The finished tile consists of three basic materials:
Before these materials are accepted at the facility, they undergo rigorous quality checks. Once the materials pass the company’s specified standards, they are routed to separate storage silos in a covered area of the factory.
When the time comes to use the raw materials, each raw material making up the required mix is checked for quality and consistency by an automatic computerized weighing and dispensing system that will deliver the exact amount of each ingredient.
The weighing and dispensing system conveys the raw materials to a grinding bay. Here they are fed into what’s known as a Continuous Mill. The resulting mixture is known in the industry as “slip” (a fine paste comprised of some 30% moisture content).
Next the slip is atomized. During this step, the liquid suspension is forced at high pressure into a drying chamber where it is dispersed as a fine spray. The resultant dry powder is known as atomized dust.
Step 2: Pressing and Decorating
The atomized dust is loaded into a hopper, passed through a sieve to remove any impurities, and then delivered to dispensers at the beginning of the production line. At this stage the tile is given its first surface decoration.
Next is the pressing phase. The state-of-the-art hydraulic press is the key element. It is one of the few presses in the whole world able to make large 3 by 1 meter ceramic slabs. During pressing all of the air contained between the granules of the dust-mix is expelled. The result is a smaller, highly compacted tile body. Upon leaving the press, the jagged edges of the tile body are trimmed.
The slabs are then rolled by conveyor belt to the drying tunnel where, upon exit, the slabs will have a residual humidity of 5%.
The last stage of this step is a digital decoration technique. The production line employs latest generation decoration equipment. Seven silk-screen Rotocolor printers apply background dyes, a range of graphic designs and protective surface glazes. These are combined with an innovative digital ink-jet printer with 6 print-head bars. Each bar can carry a different colour pigment, meaning that up to 6 colours can be applied. The ink-jet printer operates like a plotter making repeated passes over the slab as required.
This process ensures high-resolution patterns or pictures. There’s no limit to the graphic designs possible. The line also caters for smaller formats.
Step 3: Kiln Firing and Slab Holding Bay
The thin slabs are fired in natural gas kilns with special gas burners. The slabs are fired for 35 minutes at an extremely high temperature of 1210 C (2210 F!).
The cooling phase is a very crucial phase where care must be exercised to ensure the resulting slabs are perfectly flat, exactly the right size and with no internal stress.
This firing and cooling phase consumes less energy and releases fewer pollutants and less CO2 into the atmosphere. Also, most of the electric energy used is generated by the heat of the gas kiln and only occasionally is purchased from the grid.
The fired ceramic slabs are automatically removed and stacked on special racks. The loaded racks are then transported by laser-guided vehicles (LGVs) to their allocated place in the warehouse where they will be retrieved for finishing as per customer orders.
Step 4: Finishing and Slab Selection
At the gluing line, a fibreglass underlayer is glued to the bottom of the slab. This backing considerably improves the tile’s mechanical strength and affords excellent bending and shock resistance.
The tile-cutting line handles all slab types, with or without the fibreglass backing. On exiting the firing kiln, the ceramic slab is 3070×1040 mm in size. It is now snap-cut to the exact format size of 3000×1000 mm or smaller.
Once tiles reach the final selection line, they undergo a further quality check by automatic sizing machines. A last visual inspection of each tile surface is also made by expert operators before the slabs pass to the packing and dispatch bays.
Lea’s holding company, Panariagroup, confirms its commitment to its mission of Excellence, Research and Innovation with the aim of developing new product lines and forward-thinking solutions to meet ever more demanding customer expectations. The company is committed to maintaining Italian style excellence in tiles and that is just one reason Atlantic Link is pleased to offer these tiles to the U.S.