When we think of technology and the idea of our horizons being expanded as new leaps are made, it seems unlikely that our thoughts would immediately turn to tile. My mind automatically pulls up an image of the late Steve Jobs in his black mock turtleneck showing us the next life-changing electronic device. Perhaps, more recently, Elon Musk announcing the next star chasing vehicle and timeline for humankind’s imminent arrival on Mars. The advancements in technology that give birth to these dramatic announcements seem to speak to something at the core of being human; our inherent drive to open new doors by creating something bigger, better…smarter. For a person who has grown up around and worked in the tile and floor covering industries for 40-plus years, I fully understand that our “big news” and new technology is not likely to make the national news.
Gauged porcelain tile and gauged porcelain tile panels/slabs are technically not a new topic or product anymore. We have been dealing with them in the U.S. for almost a decade now and have even managed to develop product and installation standards. The latest addition, ANSI 108.20, the exterior installation standard was approved in late 2020 and should be available to the masses by the time this article is published. While the industry is finally starting to wrap its collective head around this new product segment, it is important to consider that GPTP/S is still in its infancy. Humans have been installing tile on floors and walls for thousands of years, so the general premise is far from extraordinary. However, when you start to think about the design possibilities that GPTP/S bring to the tile industry, you begin to realize what a game changer it can be.
When you look back in history at early tile work around the Mediterranean, you can see both the enduring beauty and practicality that have made tile a popular choice for several millennia. I marvel at stories and images of recently unearthed Roman mosaics and the incredible condition of these ancient tile installations. These installations, while timeless, display both the unmatched practicality and durability of tile but also the design considerations that have limited tile for modern designers. Mosaics are certainly an exaggerated example, but the modular, segmented look of tile with constant breaks for grout joints, is not always desirable. Please don’t misunderstand, this same characteristic invites a nostalgic and distinctive look that has and continues to dominate the scene in bathrooms and backsplashes. The popularity of subway tile (both large and small), often accented with a much darker grout, is testament to the continued design adaptability of tile.
Gauged porcelain tile and gauged porcelain tile panels/slabs are the innovation that is finally lifting the limitations of design possibility for the tile industry. The ability to offer all the advantages of porcelain tile with the stunning visuals created by 50 square foot panel/slabs is likely more important than you have ever considered. Natural stone has been available in large slab formats for as long as quarries have existed. Shipping, cost, durability and practicality have always limited the market for stone slab applications. The realities of marrying the aesthetic and practical needs of designers has always been the biggest challenge for the tile industry…we just needed the right technology. Another advantage of porcelain technology is the endless visual opportunities. GPTP/S manufacturers offer all the traditional looks to mimic natural stone but are far from limited to these visuals. Some of the most popular trends in this market segment offer metallic looks that most people would never guess is created from a porcelain tile. The reality is that there are no limits to the visuals that can be created as you could consider this a more sanitary and durable version of wallpaper. The advantages of GPTP/S go far beyond just the visual appeal. Reduced raw materials, energy consumption and shipping costs are some of the factors that make this product appealing from the manufacture’s perspective and certainly within the sustainability community. Full-size panels can be stocked by manufacturers or distributors and cut down to various sizes for different orders. Installers enjoy the ease of cutting and drilling for onsite fabrication. If you have remained unconvinced as the long-term viability of this product segment, it is time to consider the notion that GPTP/S is here to stay.
The tile industry has wrestled with constant threats to market share over the years and most recently the culprit has been modular vinyl flooring. Like tile, innovations in technology have made more realistic visuals combined with ease of installation and the relatively low material costs of vinyl flooring more attractive. These vinyl flooring innovations have paved the way for incredible growth within the flooring market. Concerns over the loss of market share on the floor can be, at the very least, partially negated by the opportunities for growth on walls. This raises the stakes for the tile industry to capitalize on the new opportunities on the “vertical horizon.”
As an installation materials manufacturer, Mapei is always looking to help facilitate new opportunities for industry growth. Mapei has been instrumental in the education of industry professionals across North America by conducting countless interactive training seminars on the installation of GPTP/S. Our European roots provided experience with these materials, years before their introduction in North America and aided in the development of specialized products designed to increase the ease and effectiveness of installation. Products like Ultralite S2 and Planitop 330 Fast have become commonplace on jobsites where GPTP/S are installed. Our latest introduction, Ultrabond ECO GPT, is an example of an even more specialized product offering.
Ultrabond ECO GTP is a single-component, non-sag, easy-to-trowel, hybrid polymer-based adhesive technology specially designed for the installation of GPTP/S. This product is specifically designed for installation on interior walls. If this seems somewhat narrow in scope, consider the different substrates where this adhesive can be used, such as: existing ceramic and porcelain tile, gypsum wallboard, steel, epoxy, fiberglass, Mapei waterproofing membranes and all the usual suspects like concrete and cement backer units. The opportunities for not only new construction, but also renovations are endless. Wall applications can utilize GPTP/S as thin as 1/8” and with a single coat of Ultrabond ECO GPT on the back of the tile, the effect on overall elevation is minimal. Dated, worn out looking walls can be transformed to the latest visual trends with minimal prep and disruption to the space.
Matching innovations in finish products with innovation in installation materials is vital for the long-term health of our industry. As the opportunities grow for GPTP/S installations, more installers will need to become familiar with the tools, skills and nuance necessary for a successful installation. Installing a 50 square foot porcelain tile is an entirely different animal than slapping a 12” x 24” tile on the wall. The good news is that the products and training are available for any installer who wants to learn.
Simply introducing a new technology to an industry is not enough to ensure its success. This innovation is here to stay due to the benefits of manufacturing. When tile, installation materials and tool manufacturers, distributors, and labor all work together to foster and develop these new products, then industry changing leaps can be made. This has already occurred with the development of a new product standard “ANSI A137.3 American National Standard Specifications for Gauged Porcelain Tiles and Gauged Porcelain Tile Panels Slabs”. Two new installation standards have been developed; ANSI A108.19 Interior Installation of Gauged Porcelain Tiles and Gauged Porcelain Tile Panels Slabs by the Thin-Bed Method and the new ANSI A108.20 American National Standard Specifications for Exterior Installation of Vertical and Overhead Gauged Porcelain. The foundation has been laid for GPTP/S to be a tremendous growth opportunity for the tile industry. As the demand continues to increase, it will be imperative that the innovation in tools, setting materials and a qualified labor pool grow with it. If you have not already taken part in a GPTP/S training, I would encourage you to do so soon. The opportunity to ride the wave of new technology into the future and secure professional relevance as a craftsperson whose skills have been honed on the cutting edge of the of the industry should not be ignored.