In the east end of our enamel shop in Kohler, Wisconsin, sits a development lab. Here, pottery cull, foundry sand and other traditional “waste” products are turned into useful and beautiful products. But the idea for the lab originated many years ago and many thousands of miles away.
In 2005, Kohler Co. industrial designer Theresa Millard and artist Jim Neiman attended a weeklong course in Costa Rica studying biomimicry and the idea that waste in nature is upcycled through the ecosystem. They realized that business and manufacturing could learn a lot from nature’s model, and for the next five years, kept asking “how can we apply this concept to our world.”
“We began studying waste streams right here at Kohler,” explained Theresa. “Where are they, where do they come from and where do they go?” They were determined to figure out how and why materials are so readily thrown away.
At the same time, Kohler launched the Innovation for Good program—a think tank where associates from every department come together and use their experiences and expertise to address pressing global issues. Struggling with what to do next, Theresa and Jim brought some of the waste materials to an Innovation for Good workshop in 2013. They brainstormed with the larger group on what could be done with the materials, and there were several promising ideas. But the biggest and best idea was the WasteLAB itself.
“We realized that our questions couldn’t be solved in a single workshop session. We needed a place for physical experimentation and product/process development,” said Theresa. “So, we had this idea for a permanent lab.”
Through further experimentation with waste materials over the next few years, they were able to demonstrate enough confidence in the idea to get funds approved, and the Kohler WasteLAB was born in 2017.
With a physical space established, they needed to formalize a team. Theresa took over as Project Manager overseeing the lab, while Jim became the artist-at-large and technical designer of materials and processes. Next, they called on fellow ceramic artist and industrial designer Monty Stauffer.
“Theresa didn’t even finish explaining the position to me before I told her I would join the team,” said Monty, now the WasteLAB’s senior industrial designer. “I’ve always told people that I get to play in the mud for a living, but now I tell them I get to make beautiful, saleable products out of landfill-bound waste. It never fails to start an interesting line of questions.”
Over the next few years, the WasteLAB team was rounded out by engineers, project specialists and even volunteers from around Kohler Co. Working with our own manufacturing waste—pottery dry cull, waste enamel powder, glaze overspray, vitreous cull and iron slag—the team creates ceramic tiles, vessels and other decorative items, with experimental prototypes in the works for bricks, tabletops and pavers. To do this, they must create new processes that use what is available instead of going somewhere else to find the materials, explained Monty. The approach is similar to new product development but for waste.
“We also take an artistic angle rather than just technical or engineering,” added Theresa. “Jim, Monty and I are artists and craftsmen, and we apply a love of materials to the challenge.”
With projects now in the works in China and a potential new lab in India, the WasteLAB team is looking toward growth and global expansion. As a living case study for innovation in sustainability, they hope to be a catalyst for Kohler, other companies and consumers.
“The world is running out of resources,” added Theresa. “We see a future where all teams will have a design plan for the waste that will be generated in the production of their products and services.”
For more information on new WasteLAB products and Kohler sustainability, visit wastelab.kohler.com.