Ceramic and porcelain tiles can be found providing sterling service in almost any market sector in South Africa – from residential applications of all types to new offices and other commercial projects, healthcare and hospitality, the retail sector, food and beverage installations and many more, including renovation projects.

The reason why they are a preferred flooring material in such a wide range of applications is that they are easy to install, can meet and enhance any décor requirement, will endure the most exacting working environments and heavy traffic, require minimum maintenance, and last longer than almost any other flooring material.

To discover what the current situation is in this ebullient flooring market, FLOORS in Africa contacted some of the big players in this sector, including Richard Nuss, Marketing Manager of Johnson Tiles; Amraj Lux Dursan, Italtile Marketing & Design Manager; Kate van Niekerk, Marketing Manager of Tile Africa; Oren Sachs, Managing Director, World of Marble & Granite; José Rodrigues of Tile Space; Trevor King, Marketing Director, Neolith; and Kim Davidson, Managing Director and Sanet Shepperson, GM of Ferreiras; for their views, reported on below.

Johnson Tiles
Richard says that while the company has gone through a couple of testing months so far this year, they are still experiencing positive feedback from the market.

“Our brand is strong and with our reinforcing our position, strength and quality we are holding steady,” he says. “New business is on the rise due to the hard work of our sales team pushing for new business in certain markets.”

Richard says that the locally made porcelain tiles have been very well received, especially in the contracts market due to their inherent benefits and the fact that they are from a trusted local source such as Johnson Tiles.

“The trend we see is towards more natural-looking, large-format tiles, particularly glossy porcelain,” he says. “The advent of inkjet technology helps to create tiles with any print imaginable; new in South Africa are the wood look-alike tiles – these have the traditional benefits of ceramic tiles but with the warm look of wood – very trendy, though quite costly.”

Richard says that the good sellers at the moment are the new 500 x 500mm and 400 x 400mm glazed ceramic tiles, and also the new 400 x 400mm porcelain tiles with a dry glazed finish to make them hardwearing and slip-resistant.

Johnson Tiles celebrated 60 years in South Africa in 2012 – a wonderful achievement and milestone for this bourgeoning company, considering its rather humble beginnings.

Italtile
Asked what he considers is the most important development(s) in these materials in recent years, Amraj said, “Ceramic tiles have developed mostly in the wall tile section. Since the introduction of inkjet technology wall tiles have shaped themselves into a total new dimension and larger formats.”

“Since porcelain is more suitable for floor tiles than ceramic, and with the introduction of Digital Inkjet technology, porcelain tiles have been rejuvenated once again. It is now possible to copy the “natural look” of “natural material” more accurately than ever before. The development lately is definitely towards the wood look as well as the natural stone/cement look. Anything else is the exception rather than the rule,” he says.

Regarding stone, Amraj commented that there is a renewed effort in the market to duplicate the opulent Marble look with both polished and glazed porcelain tiles.

Amraj said the current demand for ceramic and porcelain is definitely increasing. “The variety now available in terms of designs, colours and sizes is far more than 4/5 years ago. The sources for natural stone are decreasing, making natural stone ever more expensive,” he said.

Overall, there is definitely an increasing demand for large-format tiles. With the new technology in ceramic/porcelain tiles this has enabled large slabs to become more readily available, providing a sleeker finish.

“In general, the interest in the market has moved towards the more natural look. So in terms of colours, patterns and surfaces, tile is definitely all natural. There is still a demand for the more classical look as well as modern/contemporary, but the overwhelming part of the market leans toward the natural look,” Amraj said.

FLOORS asked him if there is much (or increasing) demand for butt-jointed (virtually seamless) flooring, and he replied, “Yes, definitely, larger formats providing a seamless finish are very sought after, although one needs to ensure expansion is taken into account in each application.”

Answering a question on etched surfaces for safety floor tiles, Amraj said the market is now quite educated regarding this and will almost in all instances ask for etched surfaces in the case of outside areas, swimming pool areas and staircases.

Imports play an important role in the Italtile sales programme, and a huge part of the product the company is selling is sourced from various countries including Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Germany.

In ranking the various market sectors in terms of sales importance, Amraj placed them as Residential/commercial/healthcare/hospitality/other, and felt that the biggest competition in other materials comes from natural wood and laminate flooring, and carpeting to a lesser extent.

Italtile attended CERSAIE 2012, and FLOORS took the opportunity of asking Amraj to give some feedback on the trends he saw.

“The trend is definitely the wood/cement/natural stone look of which the wood look was the biggest. Every single manufacturer has some kind of interpretation or variation of the wood look in different sizes, even in 40 x 80cm. Another “trend” was an almost total lack of wall tiles,” he concluded.

Tile Africa
Looking at what she considers are the most important developments in these materials in recent years, Kate said, “Advances in porcelain manufacture such as double loading, rectification, and polishing techniques have been significant, including nano-technology for high-polish, high-durability finish on polished porcelain.”

“Inkjet printing technology is also a major advance, allowing for very high definition printing on uneven surfaces. This has led to the development of tiles which look exactly like other materials such as marble, stone and wood. This has also resulted in an increasing demand for butt-jointed (virtually seamless) flooring, because where you have tiles pretending to be something else, like wood or marble, it ruins the effect if there are grout joints.”

Currently, Kate said there is an increasing demand for large-format tiles (400 x 400mm and larger) which are increasingly preferred over the 300 x 300mm size. There is also huge interest overseas in more colour patterns and different surface finishes. The South African market tends to be more conservative, but certainly there is an increasing interest among architects, designers and consumers who keep up with world trends.

Kate also agrees that there is a regular demand for ‘safety’ floor tiles – with an etched surface, and says that people always look for tiles for outside or wet areas that are more slip-resistant.

In ranking the various market sectors in terms of sales importance, Kate positions the national corporates first, followed by commercial properties, and then the residential sector.

Tile Africa imports tiles from China, Spain and Italy, but these are always high-quality products, and the local market seems to be affected by some poor quality imports particularly from China.

The demand for ceramic and porcelain is growing but, commenting on competitive flooring materials that affect the market share, Kate is of the opinion that carpets are declining, although concrete screeds, natural wood and laminate floorings are still growing. Also, in world terms, Kate rates the standard of South African installation workmanship as generally poor, although there are pockets of excellence.

Asked for her views on CERSAIE 2012 as opposed to the previous year, Kate said that there was not much difference from 2011 – it was just done more exquisitely.

“Regarding the trends at this expo, there was a swing towards the natural looks, with very realistic wood, stone, marble made using high-definition inkjet printing,” she said.

“Big sizes also featured – up to 2m x 1m tile sheets. A lot of long rectangular tiles such as 200mm x 600mm, laid horizontally, were also prevalent, and colour is back; plain tiles and patterns in a riot of colour from greyed-down, antique-type colours to zesty citrus shades.”

“Pattern is back with ‘retro’ geometrics, florals, lots of textile patterns, damask, lace, with high-definition inkjet printers giving very realistic and detailed pattern finishes, and allowing every tile to be different.”

Asked for her view on the future, Kate said, “We will see more relief finishes where the tile has a texture, sometimes very dramatic and defined. Textures vary from natural shapes like ripples on sand to big ‘blocky’ geometric patterns,” she concluded.

WOMAG (World of Marble & Granite)
Oren also agrees that perhaps the most significant development is the advanced technology, which now provides the ability to print on porcelain and imitate any fabric. Also the current trend is for large format tiles – up to 600 x 1 800mm.

“Regarding colours, there are ‘regional’ preferences; in Johannesburg there is still a strong demand for cream/beige, and there is a move, especially in the top end of the market, for greys and whites. In the Cape area the ‘move’ has already happened, and many clients are taking the grey, light grey and white as their flooring. There is still a demand for the natural tones.”

“There is a demand for virtually seamless floors, and the large format porcelain and natural stone tiles fit the bill exactly, because the large tiles do not require as many movement joints as the smaller tiles – even the 400 x 400mm tiles need joints,” he says. “However, these must have a perimeter flexible joint around the room to allow for movement.”

Oren says that non-slip and safety floors are always very popular around pools or most other outside areas, even on the smaller projects.

In general, Oren says the most active market sectors are currently the indoor or outdoor applications for residential projects, followed by the commercial sector and the hospital/healthcare applications.

“All WOMAG materials are imported, and the company goes to all the overseas expos looking for new trends and finishes. Even then we do not buy from anyone until we have seen their factory and how they operate,” he says. “We also check their staff, showrooms, and – most importantly – the quality control.”

“We buy mainly from Italy, Brazil, Spain and China, and although price is always a consideration, we ensure the tiles are top quality,” he says.

“The current demand for hard flooring is definitely increasing, and I think that within 4-5 years we can expect to see a reduction in the price of porcelain and the new technologies enable more production economies,” he says.

Tile Space
José says that the ceramic and porcelain tiles are benefiting from the innovations of digital printing technology and large-format manufacture – currently the two biggest trends from Europe and the East.

“There is an increasing demand for large-format tiles, but with regard to the faux timber looks now selling so heavily, Tile Space first brought these to the South African market in 2007 – and fortunately they have taken off since then,” he says.

“Although South Africa is usually about two years behind Europe in trend fashions, the cement finished look in big-format tiles is now prevalent here, and there is no doubt that the new technologies are helping this sector of the industry with these amazing designs.”

“We also see a huge increase in demand for seamless floors, using butt-jointed tiles,” says José, “and we also see a considerable increase in consumers asking for non-slip tiles, even though the rougher tiles are harder to clean. Textured tiles are equally suitable for anti-slip applications, however.”

“In terms of our sales percentage, the commercial sector still holds the day, followed by healthcare, hospitality and then residential applications,” he says.

Although there is some local supply of porcelain tiles, José says that over 95% are imported, and feels that throughout the world the ceramic and porcelain manufacturers are in competition amongst themselves – not other floor finishes!

Asked for his opinion on local workmanship for installations, José said that this is generally poor. Some years ago Bifsa College acted almost like a training academy, but this is no more, and there is a definite lack of skills development and site supervision that causes many problems – although the installation of big-format tiles will “sort the men from the boys”, he says, because skilled professionals are needed to install correctly.

Neolith
Trevor King rates the recently introduced sintered porcelain, which is claimed to be the largest porcelain slab and exceptionally durable, as the most important development in these materials in recent years. “This is of particular interest as there is an increasing demand for porcelain slabs that can be cut to size,” he says.

“People are always looking for new trends – they like variety. So, although there is already a myriad of colours and textures available, people are always looking for something new, which is probably why there is so much demand for butt-jointed or virtually seamless flooring these days,” says Trevor.

Ranking the various market sectors in terms of sales importance, Trevor places residential first, followed by commercial, hospitality, and healthcare.

Ferreiras
Kim Davidson (MD) and Sanet Shepperson (GM) of Ferreiras agreed in principle with all the other participants in that the most important recent developments in ceramic and porcelain have been the advent of large-format tiles and the versatility of design that the advanced printing technology has provided.

“Embossing and tile printing used to be an impractical proposition, but now it has become an emotional and beautiful design element that enables architects and designers to fully express their innovative ideas,” says Sanet. “The larger formats are also a step forward, particularly for large areas such as shopping malls, (floors and cladding) because their practicability, durability and the use of technology involved is unbelievable.” Some tiles can even bend in a cladding solution.

“The wood look that is now provided is becoming a firm replacement for the real thing, and provides a more eco-friendly approach,” says Sanet. “It can save the cutting down of thousands of trees, but has the same look on the floor, and great durability – lasting almost for ever. You can now get any exotic wood or natural stone or almost anything today with ceramics with the new technology.”

Kim agrees, “Porcelain is really good-looking in large formats, and it also provides many ‘green’ benefits such as less transportation, less weight – making it easier to handle and install, and all at a higher level than ever before. So it is very eco-friendly now,” he says.

“Also, timber has to be sawn, treated, produced as planks, sanded down and provided with a finish that needs maintenance throughout its lifespan – but ceramic can even replicate limewash effects and the absolute natural look of the most exotic woods – and they can be used both inside and outside.”

“This means that these wood effects are being used in place of timber decking and around swimming pools, and are provided with a variety of finishes; the tiles enable you to walk on the deck even when it is raining without slipping, and the maintenance aspects are minimal,” Kim says.

Sanet says that there are different varieties of surface finish provided in the same ranges – matt, polished and non-slip – providing a full solution, and you do not realise that there is a change in surfaces when you walk on them because they look the same. “They are really spectacular in colour, look and feel.”

Kim also mentioned a new form of ceramic floorcovering with hygienic properties which is being marketed jointly by two Italian companies. “These ceramic tiles are claimed to be dirt-repellent and to interact with the environment in a way that reduces pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and carbon monoxide, by up to 70%.”

As well as anti-pollution properties the tiles also have an anti-bacterial action that eliminates bacterial strains such as Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus.

These desirable properties are provided by an application of titanium dioxide at high temperature. On exposure to light this compound activates a photocatalytic process, which is basis for the product’s anti-pollution and bactericidal action.

“The tiles are claimed to be suitable for indoor and outdoor environments where cleanliness, sanitation and hygiene are important requirements, making them ideal for surgeries, hospitals, clinics, and other clean rooms,” Kim says.

Asked if the demand for butt-jointed installations is on the increase, Sanet agrees that it is, although designers must ensure that attention is given to expansion joints on the large areas. “Also, we are finding more demand for anti-slip floors both inside and outside, particularly where wet floors or constant spillages are concerned,” she says.

Regarding the sector activity in the market, Kim said that the hospitality sector is well down, and those activities that are taking place are inclined towards the use of cheaper tiles. The commercial sector is up slightly with interest in the big tiles, but residential is down because a lot of developers are adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude or buying much cheaper tiles – the upmarket estate developments that use the better-quality tiles are quiet, he says. He feels that the renovation sector is buoyant, with people renovating rather than building, which means that money is tight and the demand for new housing is slow. “However, the country must address the housing issue,” he commented.

Due to an increase in customer demand for the international tile brands and also limited local supply, Ferreiras imports a considerable amount of stock overseas – such as but not limited to Brazil, Spain, Italy and Turkey.

“There are two elements to laying down a premium tile: the tile itself and the skill of the one that installs it. With increased budget pressures, we experience that the first thing that gets sacrificed is the quality of the workmanship. It is critical that to reap the full benefit of a premium tile, the installer needs to have the proper skill to install it.”

Specification according to application is essential. Replacing the originally specified tile with a more economic and similar looking tile is one of the reasons why they do not last. It is about having the right tools for the right job.

Finally, Kim said that the versatility of ceramic and porcelain tiles – both in design and application – is a strong point for these materials. “To ensure that they get it right we spend a lot of time in providing a service to clients in our showroom, because giving the customer the right product and the right price for the right application is of paramount importance,” he concluded.

Conclusion
Next to (or perhaps even equalling) natural stone, modern ceramic and porcelain tiles have an exceptionally long service life when installed and maintained properly.

In addition, the latest technology has turned workaday floors into a designer’s dream with the ability to replicate almost any design, together with an extraordinary range of colours and patterns.

These developments have taken place despite the economic downturn in most European countries, and simply underline the faith and pure devotion that the manufacturers have for their products, and the attention they pay to their customers’ requirements.  

As we have seen in this introductory feature article, this enthusiasm is equally portrayed by the main players in the South African flooring industry, who steadfastly believe in high-quality product and customer service.

Acknowledgement and thanks are given to the following for information contained in this feature: www.laceramicaitaliana.it; Ceramic Tiles of Italy; Johnson Tiles; Italtile; Norcros SA; WOMAG (World of Marble & Granite); Ferreiras; and all the contributors named in the article.