At Kohler Company, there is more than meets the eye. The American manufacturer might be best known for their gleaming kitchen and bathroom fixtures, but the Wisconsin-based family business also produces tiles, cabinetry, engines, and generators. In addition, the company is developing new materials from foundry waste.
Ceramic artist Theresa Millard started working at Kohler in 1988 supervising the Artist Editions production team. After moving over to industrial design, she traveled to Costa Rica in 2005 to study biomimicry, an approach that draws inspiration from nature.
“What I really learned about was sustainability,” she says. “It changed my personal understanding of the world relative to systems thinking and the boundaries of the planet.”
Millard’s realization coincided with a time when the company was asking bigger questions about sustainability. She joined Kohler’s cross-functional environmental leadership team in 2007, and began focusing on sustainability full-time for the company around 2011.
Now she is project manager for Kohler’s new Waste Lab, where she heads up sustainability and stewardship with a team that includes her husband, technical designer Jim Neiman. The team is developing its first high-end tile product, expected to go on the market later this year. Recently we caught up with Millard to learn how the lab helps Kohler see value in foundry dust, clay, and material scraps.
How do you approach industrial waste?
We’re craftsmen. And as craftsmen we’ve always had a lot of materials. We asked, ‘Why can’t we be as much in love with dust or waste scraps as we are with materials that have been virgin mined and processed? Can we fall in love with waste? And then how might we do that?’
We don’t think of this as waste, but as great ingredients. If we could honor them in a different way then it would be beneficial to everyone.
What was the impetus for the lab and how does it fit into Kohler’s sustainability strategy?
New product development and environmental health and safety (EHS), those two worlds don’t collide very often in many organizations. But I started asking the EHS people, ‘What is this waste anyway?’ Good friends in the field took me out to the landfill and helped me see what was there.
Safety is probably our highest criteria with waste, but after that many waste streams tend to get downgraded or, at best, recycled into construction projects or roadbeds. It seemed like such a shame because we pay for top quality materials. What if we took an innovation view to waste instead of a liability one?
We had smart people on the science side help us understand that you could take these materials, break them down into their components, and turn them into something useful. That’s where the idea of the Waste Lab came from.
Kohler’s sustainability strategy was focused on footprint improvement, product development, and culture. And within the Waste Lab project, we found we could target footprint reduction with product development, and the bigger question of culture change by seeing waste differently.
How did you work with the EHS team?
I have come across EHS people at different companies — and Kohler has them, too — who are very protective. It’s normal when you think about the history of the environmental movement. We made breakthroughs when we talked about what would be in it for them if we could be successful. One measure is the reduction of waste to landfill. If I’m successful in the lab, they send less material to landfill. A big deal was getting to the perception that if one of us wins, the other wins.
Another was if we could make money from these waste streams and turn it into a business, then you get a different kind of person involved who can talk about strategy, business development, margins, and brand building. That helps across the chain.
Is there an example of work from the lab that you can share?
One day I was looking at all the different waste we have, the chemical breakdowns, the properties, and the characteristics. Kohler has been looking these for years. Jim said, ‘Let me take a look.’
He was able to look at the chemical composition of foundry dust. There are a lot of safety measures in place in the foundry to collect all the particulates to protect human health. When you clean the factory, you collect thousands of tons of the dust. It’s very fine. And Jim said, ‘Oh, if you just process this differently, this would be ceramic.’
Jim figured out how you could take this superfine black dust — a conglomerate of multiple things coming through the foundry process including iron, clay, corn cobs, carbon — put them together, and process them. They actually turn into a sort of terra cotta clay.
What are the biggest challenges you’re facing at the lab, and how are you working to address them?
In the beginning, people could not wrap their heads around what we were doing, that you could convert this to a business. Money is always a challenge — can you get the right amount to prove a concept?
We got to proof-of-concept just before Christmas, and now we’re moving to advanced development. We actually got our final design approval on our first tile line for [Kohler brand] Ann Sacks, which we hope will come to market at the end of the year. We’re using normal new product development processes.
Bringing people on culturally is a challenge. Trying to fit inside the existing business models — profit and loss, for example. We are trying to set ourselves up for a normal business paradigm. But we are going to be a little slower than business people would like, in terms of proving ourselves out.
There is a technical challenge in using waste streams because when anyone buys virgin materials, the supplier does the quality control for them. With our materials, Kohler has already invested money in them. Nobody wants to spend more time or money.
We also need to have a wider acceptance from a craftsman point of view. We’re saying that these handmade tiles are more one-of-a-kind, each one is a little different. That fits well with what we’re seeing with environmentally-led ideas where everything doesn’t have to be super-perfect to be great.
When you consider the future, what do you see?
What I see for the future is people are beginning to see that this might work, and this gives me great hope. They actually help us become more successful as we apply what we do to other challenges within waste streams at Kohler.
Circular economy is such a great field to be in right now because there is so much emerging. We see a new story every day. As long as we can keep one foot in the business world and show we’re sustainable from a self-sufficiency point of view, that is how we drive change — not just for Kohler, but for all businesses and industries.
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