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A victory for exports

by Nicola Tedeschini

There is now one less obstacle facing companies that export the beauty and quality of Italian ceramic tiles worldwide. Within the ceramic tile technical committee of the Geneva-based ISO, the international organisation for standardisation of goods and commercial services, an agreement has been reached to adopt a single global method for measuring water absorption in tiles. The plenary session of Technical Committee 189, held in Seville in November, proved decisive in this respect.

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Forming method and water absorption are the two fundamental parameters used for classifying different types of tiles. And most importantly, as of January 2017 water absorption will become the criterion used to establish the various customs code classes. For this reason it is vital to have a measurement method that is uniform the world over. But until now, the European Union has openly differed on this point with respect to the USA, which of course continues to be a vital market for the sector. According to the Osservatorio Previsionale, the forecasting report made in December by Prometeia and Bper Banca for Confindustria Ceramica, Italian companies sold 42 million square metres of tiles in the NAFTA region in 2014, a figure that is expected to increase by 6.3% in 2015 and by a further 7.1% during the current year.
In Europe, for the past thirty years the EN standard established by the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) has replaced and harmonised the standards previously in force in the individual countries. This standard currently defines the boiling method as valid for the purposes of classification. In this method, tiles are immersed in water and their difference in weight measured before and after immersion. The alternative is the Vacuum method, which uses a measuring instrument called a vacuum meter. These two methods diverge considerably and show substantial agreement only for tiles with a degree of absorption of up to 0.2%, a figure that indicates the weight of water present with respect to total weight of the tile. On the other side of the Atlantic where ASTM standards are in force, the test used is similar to the boiling method but the tile is kept in the liquid for a longer period of time. This means that the technical tests are stricter, in line with the Vacuum method.
“When absorption thresholds differ according to the type of test adopted, the same tile may be assigned different customs codes. For example, it may be considered porcelain tile in the EU but single fired tile in the United States,” explains Confindustria Ceramica.  “This would have adverse consequences for companies not just in terms of commercial appeal, in that a product might be listed as belonging to a less prestigious category than is actually the case, but would also have legal repercussions. Just think of the potential allegations of commercial fraud or the possible application of duties.” Without an ISO agreement, as of January 2017 tiles manufactured in Italy and other countries could have faced a new TBT (Technical Barrier to Trade), a technicality used by states to obstruct the import of goods from third countries regardless of their most ardent professions of faith in free trade. Protectionist barriers of this kind would not only contradict the spirit and probably also the rules of the World Trade Organization, but would also not be the best advertisement for the TTIP treaty currently being negotiated between Washington and Brussels. At the same time the EU finds itself having to protect key industrial sectors from unfair competition from China, a risk that fully legitimises measures such as the customs duties applied to ceramic tile imports since the spring of 2011.
“The US delegation long insisted on applying the ASTM method to the whole world,” noted Confindustria Ceramica. “Fortunately in the end the Vacuum method was agreed on as an excellent compromise.” Following the green light given by Technical Committee 189, the draft of the new ISO regulations on the water absorption tests will be forwarded to the Central Secretariat, after which it will be submitted to all 162 national bodies for comment within a period of three months. It will then be submitted for final approval in accordance with the voting rules established by the organisation’s governance. “We hope that this will be completed rapidly, in time for the deadline of January 2017.”
“While the ISO agreement is an important milestone, a further necessary step forward is implementation as a national standard in all countries that adopt the ISO standard worldwide,” noted Luciano Galassini, who headed the Italian delegation in Seville. “Unlike the EN standards in Europe which simply replace national standards, the ISO standard must be enacted at a national level. European countries are likely to proceed this way and it is to be hoped that their example will be followed by the USA, Brazil, China and the other countries that have contributed to establishing a common method for measuring water absorption within the ISO. But we would do well to remember that history is a slow and non-linear process, a kind of punctuated equilibrium.”

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