Mr. Humberto Valles, General Manager of ICC (Interceramic China), commented on the large ceramic slab heat in China in the interview with CTW. Humberto said "China is a huge market and the market is still growing. Big slabs are used in Italy a lot, as well as in Spain and other countries like the US. But they are never used as much as in China. In China, I expect the consumption of ceramic slabs to grow rapidly."
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Experts in China analyzed that the market space of large ceramic slabs in China will reach two billion square meters. What’s your opinion on that?
Building dozens of new large size (tile) lines is no secret in China. China’s large size lines by far have surpassed those of India, Italy, and Spain. Not another country has done it before. China is like, wow. China is coming back, extremely strong by building all these slab new factories. I think China is a huge market. It is going to be the largest market in the world by far. The market is growing. But it is still in the earliest stage, not mature yet.
According to the statistics, SACMI and SYSTEM has respectively 46 and 43 slab presses installed in the world in 2019. And China is expected to build up 75 or more production lines of slabs until 2021.
What are the differences of the situation of large slabs in China from other countries?
Big slabs are used in Italy a lot, as well as in Spain and other countries like the US. But they are never used as much as in China. I give you one example. Mexico, a big ceramic manufacturer, one of the top five or six (production region) in the world. Slab is not popular (there). First, their showrooms are not big. There is not much space to show the slabs. And all these ceramic companies are not very familiar with the big size. A product this big is mainly done by the stone and marble fabricators there. But China has specialized companies that can do it not necessarily as real stone or real marble fabricators. Even our own construction companies now are very familiar with how to install the ceramic slabs. But in Mexico, they do not have the infrastructure, the expertise, and the equipment to handle the ceramic slabs as China does. Yes, in other countries, (large slabs) are used, but the use is limited and mainly done with the help of fabricators. In China, I expect the consumption of ceramic slabs to grow rapidly.
Are large ceramic slabs used in the same way in other countries as in China?
Slabs in general are used for the same purpose in all other countries: as floor, wall coverage, countertops, and furniture. Not all of the countries have the same infrastructure as China and USA. At the next level you could find Italy, Germany, France, England, Canada, and from there on there are many other countries. Some (of theses countries) are much more experienced (in selling slabs) and their people have the economic power to buy expensive products like the slabs. In each of these countries there is a demand that varies depending on economy, infrastructure and the knowledge of installation, handling and use of the slabs.
Ceramic Slab Countertop
What about the sales channels of ceramic slabs in countries like Italy, Spain and India? Are they different from China?
The sales channels in other countries especially in the western countries are different from those of China. While in China you see the different and especially the top brands promoting the slabs in their showrooms. But in other countries like USA or Italy, that may not necessarily be the case. Other countries like USA, which is a good example, have experience in the use of large slabs of real stone (marble, granite) or porcelain ceramic which is getting slowly more popular. The fields of application are the same as China like I mentioned above. But the issue is that the USA people still prefer natural stones when using slabs in countertops of homes and kitchens over porcelain ceramics. Even other products made from like man-made quartz and silestone are more requested or desired, which makes large porcelain slabs a distant third or fourth place.
Ceramic Slab Kitchen Countertop
What do you think cause the less popularity of ceramic slabs in these countries?
This is due to many factors, including the history of using other products, the thicknesses of the products that are used for countertops (normally 2 -3 cm), where you absolutely need to see the edge that is exposed and need to look the same as the top. Porcelain countertops are still questioned as not complying with the thickness, making consumers doubtful of its use and performance.
Can you tell us the differences of large ceramic slabs manufactured in Italy, Spain, USA, India and China?
Italy is the most experienced manufacturer and they are continuously innovating in product design and product surface finish. They can also incorporate surface structure either using the press or digital technology (glue + grit). India on the other hand produces mainly polished finishes and their matte finish is in very early stages. I would say entry level. There is not at all any important digital effects and their designs are limited. But they polished their products in some cases like the Italians using granilla grit and not glaze like in China that in most cases give the products a lower-end look finish.
The key on the big slabs will always be originality, innovation, different surfaces, polished, matte, semi-polished, soft polished, lappatto and any digital special effect added and also make sure the products don’t have any staining problems. Italy and Spain are ahead in these aspects over USA, then India and China.
Do you think there is an oversupply in the market at present China?
It is hard to predict when China will reach in the next 2-3 years a balanced demand and supply status, but one thing is for certain, the supply will more than likely overpass the demand forcing the domestic manufacturers in the near future to look for alternative markets rather than only the Chinese one. Then China will have to find export markets, for example, Thailand, Russia, Japan, Korea, and Malaysia.
But at current time the demand is quite bigger than the domestic supply, so the Chinese distributors will compensate this lack of supply with imported products from Italy, India, Turkey and Spain. Once the domestic production starts then the imported ones will start going down, specially the low and mid- range level ones. I expect that the high-end looking ones will remain being imported from Italy or Spain. In China I guess they will have the upper hand but in the international markets there will be tough competition in design, price, logistics, exclusivity and innovation. Obviously, countries like Italy and Spain will continue to protect themselves because China is becoming strong. I am sure the prices of China will be better than that of the Italy or Spain. Again, This is my personal prediction.
How do you suggest the producers balance the quality and quantity while producing large slabs as the orders are mostly small batches?
It has been an eternal challenge for the ceramic manufacturers on how to keep a cost-efficient process. Certainly making shorter batch production helps a lot but increases the cost. The key will be to find the right balance. I am very familiar with this because I have been part of the factory. It took us some time to find the right balance of the production and how much to run to be more efficient. I can tell you this. Things have changed a lot since then. Technology is different nowadays. The digital technology allows you to make shorter runs. We are manufacturers, so we know it. I think the manufacturers for themselves will have to make a judgement to make the products more attractive to the purchasing people. Another challenge the industry will face is that there is no market for the second class of these items and this will become another challenge the industry needs to take care of.
Large slabs with a thickness of 3 mm are difficult to produce in China. How do you see this problem?
If I am not mistaken, when the big slab was produced for the first time, they were produced in 3 mm. Then they realized that it's too difficult for people to install on the floor. So the company decided to make them thicker, in 6mm or 9mm. 6 mm is the most popular because it can be used on the wall as well as on the floor. There are 12 mm and 2 cm, those are for the furniture. 12 mm is for tables. 2 cm is rarely produced, but it is now done by some of the manufacturers. Experts told me that about 80% of the slabs are 6 mm. 3 mm is used for closet and kitchen furniture because it is lightweight. But the volume is not high. The biggest volume is 6mm and 7.5mm. 9 mm is less because it becomes heavy.
How can manufacturers solve the problem of high breakage rate when processing the slabs for different applications?
It requires more qualified people to do it. We have found national companies who are really good at this, and domestic companies as well. Some big, some small. Small ones cannot give you national services. Right now we are doing it basically with our own people. We have trained like 75 people on it and still in the process of training. That was one of the solutions, but not enough. You need to provide the distributors such services in every city. It is not easy. Training is one thing, finding the right people to do it is another. I believe in the near future, there will be a lot of new installation companies. I think they can do well.
Kitchen Countertops Processing
In our next issue, we will continue to explore more with Mr. Humberto about the trends of tiles for the rest of 2020 as well as 2021.