The evolving porcelain industry and the consequences for natural stone: An interview with Fernando Bolta

The obsession of the stone industry professionals all over the world nowadays has been to try to figure out where and when the advance of the porcelain industry into applications considered the exclusive preserve of natural stone for decades, will come to a halt. To get some insights into this almost existential development for the natural stone industry, this magazine interviewed Mr Fernando Bolta, consultant in International Business to Dedalo Ceramiche, Srl in Sessuolo (Italy). Mr Bolta has worked in both the industries,10 years in the field of natural stones and agglomerated marbles, and then 30 years in the ceramic tiles sector in United States, Spain and Italy.

Fernando Bolta

As someone who has straddled both worlds, that of natural stone and porcelain, what are, in your opinion, the key differences in working culture in the two industries?

During the 80s and 90s, I would say that the natural stone sector did not have any other products that were strong and dangerous competitors. Agglomerates of Marble, for example, produced by companies such as Marmol Compac in Spain and Quarella and Santa Margherita in Italy, occupied a small portion in the niches where natural stone had a strong presence. Natural stone was,and still is, a unique, unparalleled product and I would even dare to say, also that gives status.
The natural stone’s work culture, certainly, is quite different from that of the ceramic sector. I could say that the leaders of natural stone became too complacent living in the past. Instead of converting that enormous demand and profits into value addition, investing in R&D, in marketing and advertising... they settled down, and sold blocks….! It was simpler and more comfortable to sell to countries that transformed blocks in slabs and tiles and exported those finished products worldwide, obtaining the benefit of the added value.
The ceramic sector is, fundamentally, dynamic, restless, brave and non-conformist, always thinking about how to improve, and, as the famous Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset said:”It is only possible to move forward when you look away.  Progress is only possible when you think big”.
I always remember a television spot on Spanish television in which the famous rally driver, Carlos Sainz Sr., after testing a car, said: "Yes, it's going well, but what can we do to improve it?" That restless character, that desire to improve, that firm belief that “almost” anything is possible, is what fundamentally differentiates the ceramic sector, especially in Italy and Spain.

Porcelain is a highly innovative industry. What are the main innovations that are currently taking place?

The introduction of Porcellanato in the industrial production systems has marked a before and after in the world of ceramics. Exceptional physical-mechanical characteristics, new formats, thicknesses, designs that closely resemble natural stones, wood, fabrics, etc.
What were chimeras at the end of the 90s have become realities today. Today the insertion of the veins into the interior of the body is already a fact, so that when cutting them, the vein continues throughout its thickness. Consider the following innovations:
Translucent porcelain tiles, obtaining truly spectacular onyxes.
Thicknesses up to 3 cm. and down to 0.2 cm
Ink and enamel injection systems that even allow specific structures to be created on the surface, obtaining natural stone effects that even the professionals of marble and granite are surprised by the degree of perfection obtained, making them doubt whether or not they are natural stones.
Creativity / Designs improving even those that nature itself gives us.
Polished (open-book).
Finishes: natural, polished, honed, bush-hammered, flamed, sanded effect, meshed, etc.
Touch sensor systems integration
Another innovation that some factories are already working on is 2 mm thick porcelain slabs. This thickness will allow the end user to tile or pave the pieces themselves due to their ease and high manageability.

While the ceramics and natural stone industries have both existed forever, they have taken parallel paths. But the new era of big format porcelain competes directly with natural stone in its applications. What space, in your opinion, is left for natural stone in its applications?

Natural stones, marble, granite, limestone, slate, etc., will always have a space in the medium/high and high segment of the market, whether in construction, decoration and ornamentation thanks to their versatility, design and the fact that each piece is unique and will remain in a specific portion of the high-end market where quality, style, elegance still have an important specific weight. Certainly not with the volumes of the past, since the giant formats of porcelain and the differential advantages of its physical-mechanical characteristics, have occupied a commercial space that was traditionally a reserve of natural stones.

How do you see the porcelain industry in the near future? Seen from the outside the huge volumes of production have led to a massive oversupply in the market, a severe decline in prices, and one gets the feeling the porcelain industry is collapsing.

I remember not many years ago that the daily production of ceramic tiles in Italy and Spain together was more than 3,000,000 square meters and many customers had to wait months to receive their orders. Today the production is not as much. The productive volume of the new formats and, in particular, the giant formats (up to 162x324 cm.), has  slowed down the productive volume.
However, it is true that new countries have joined this battle: India, China, Poland, Turkey, Egypt... There is talk of global production figures that would scare anyone. It is true that, at a general level, the price range will tend to decrease, to the extent that industrial costs will be also reduced. I don't believe in collapse. Each time new market niches are opening up to new and innovative ranges of porcelain products, allowing, until now, stability in demand.
I believe that, as in natural stone, the productive market will be regulated and, possibly, reduced, depending on demand.  The strongest groups and the small specialized companies will prevail, and the ones who sell price rather than value, will disappear.

One remarkable aspect has been observing how easily big format porcelain has ' captured' and incorporated the logistical part of the value added chain in the form of fabricators which the natural stone quarrying companies and the slab producing companies thought was their natural extension, and an exclusive preserve. Slabs are slabs, be they of natural stone, or quartz, or porcelain- and they can be further processed by the same fabricators. Do you think this will change?

Tiles, whether made of natural stone or porcelain, have specific applications in coverings. The slabs, however, open up infinite possibilities in their applications and uses. Today it is possible with porcelain slabs to cover almost all architectural needs of various projects, in particular, the cut-to-size section. Let us not  forget its applications in design and ornamentation, where more and more the presence of porcelain slabs, due to their unique beauty and perfection, is growing in demand.
We have reached a point of perfection in design, shading, depth, dimension, effects that resemble defects, creating ranges of products that the final consumer is not able to differentiate whether they are made of natural stone or porcelain. Even more, being able to create models and combinations of designs of natural stones that do not exist in nature.
Slabs are slabs, certainly, and in the end what prevails is beauty, elegance, style, practicality and suitability


What are the new segments of applications where you think the porcelain industry will now try to enter?

Taking in consideration the infinite and superb technical and mechanical properties of the porcelain, the design potential, the ever-more realistic material effects and the easy care, the new segments where demand is currently growing are public/urban spaces, furniture, decoration and even the funeral home.

In the age of environmental awareness, criteria of Sustainability being increasingly important, what does the huge energy consuming porcelain industry have to say? All the studies show natural stone to be the clearly superior product when it comes to Sustainability.


The preservation of the environment is of enormous importance for the ceramic sector and there have been many efforts carried out in the past and present to maintain a healthy and clean environment, at least in the producing countries of the EU. I would dare to assure that, today, each and every one of the ceramic factories in our European environment fully comply with all the regulations and laws in this regard.
What's more, various factories have already started their production processes with the new GREEN ECOLOGICAL HYDROGEN PLANTS, which represent a significant step on the path toward decarbonisation.