Modern manufacturing is all about constantly refining production processes to improve productivity and reduce waste. Inevitably, some materials may still be destined for the landfill. Even though Kohler Co. has reduced the amount of waste sent to landfills by 46 percent since 2010, a small team working from a corner of the company’s enamel shop is trying to find creative ways to drive it even lower. The goal of the Kohler Waste Lab is to use 100 percent landfill-destined materials from the company’s Sheboygan County campus to create several tile collections for Kohler’s Ann Sacks line. The larger mission is to change how people think about waste streams when they’re designing new products. “We haven’t applied new product development to waste streams and that’s what this is really about,” said Theresa Millard, project manager.
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- October 2013: The Kohler Waste Lab forms out of conversations at one of the company’s Innovation for Good retreats.
Late 2014: The team begins experimenting with different materials. Using broken pieces of toilets and urinals for clay, along with foundry dust, enamel powder and iron slag, technical designer and artist Jim Neiman creates early samples, although some are far from looking like finished tile.
Early 2015: A yellow-green sample tile finds its way to CEO David Kohler, who shows it to the product director of Kohler’s Ann Sacks line and asks the WasteLab team to develop a formal business case for the project.
December 2017: The team moves into a dedicated space in the enamel shop and begins establishing a workflow to scale up production. “We have two very difficult challenges at once,” Neiman said. “One is standardizing what we know we want to send to market and the second is finishing the offering.”
2018: The WasteLab team is delivering 100 square feet of tile for an internal Kohler project, documenting differences in color, quality and other characteristics to perfect the line. It is planning a soft launch at the Greenbuild conference in November and a full launch at the 2019 Kitchen and Bath Industry Show.