The Bold Look of Kohler

Trip Start Feb 09, 2010
Trip End Mar 17, 2010

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Flag of United States  , Wisconsin
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

(written by Jessica)  

It's too early to get up! We get up earlier than usual to be at the Kohler factory by 8:15am for the 8:30 tour. We pull into the parking lot at 8:18-- not bad since we were worried about running late.

I'm excited about the tour; we'll get to see the manufacturing processes of Kohler products. The other members of our tour party are an elderly couple from Knoxville. All of the tour guides are retired Kohler employees, and our guide, Joe, is a sharp and friendly 86-year-old gentleman. He first started at Kohler when he was 18, in 1942; he was in WWII as a mechanic, continued working at Kohler for 40-something years, and has been serving as a tour guide at Kohler for 20 years. He seemed completely satisfied and fulfilled with his life at Kohler, and still enjoys giving tours today. I can only say that I wish to be as fulfilled with my life when I am his age.

After handing out safety goggles and headphones, Joe leads us around the Kohler grounds with his hands clasped behind his back. He takes us into a building where ceramic toilets and sinks have been molded. Joe has a microphone fixed to his chest, so we can hear everything he says through our headphones; a good thing since it would have been almost impossible to hear him above the mechanical noises. He describes how the clay products have to be completely dry before they are fired in the kiln or else they could warp or explode. The industrial-sized kilns are never turned off once they are initially turned on; if they are constantly turned on and off, that would cause the kiln to shrink and expand so many times it'll get damaged. Unfortunately we aren't allowed cameras on this tour; there were so many things I wanted to take pictures of.

Kohler makes their products out of ceramic or iron (while plastic and stainless steel are made elsewhere and sent to them), so the second phase of the tour was to see the foundry. Wow! Molten iron is an incredible sight to see; glowing a hot orange, it's probably the closest thing to lava I'll ever see. The iron mold was very interesting, and here's how I understood it (you can skip ahead if you want): Two mold halves are made of a highly compressed sand. The hollow of the mold is formed when the two halves are pressed (separately?) around a piece of material that is the shape the iron will take when molded. Molten iron is poured into the sand mold and flows into the hollow cavity in the center; the heat of the metal breaks up the sand mold, so all that is required to remove the molded iron piece is to shake it out of the loose sand. All of the bathtubs here are made of iron-- (ceramic is too fragile)-- and then are coated twice with powder enamel, which immediately melts into a glossy shine on the scorching hot metal. We could feel the waves of heat emanating from the "cooled off" tubs sitting around the factory.

This tour was definitely better than any field trips I took in my Materials & Processes class at Tech. I took advantage of the small group size and asked many questions, which Joe answered without hesitation. "What if there are air bubbles in the clay as it's drying?" [They can sometimes be removed by workers; if not, they are scrapped.] "Why are some sinks made of ceramic clay and some made of iron?" [Buyer preference.] "Is the ceramic powder applied to the iron right after it's cast and still hot?" [Yes, the heat is how it melts and adheres to the surface.] "Only white enamel powder is applied by robots?" [Yes; white is the most popular enamel color, so the oversprayed powder can be vacuumed up and reused again. Color enamel powder is applied by human workers, and since the colors run together they cannot be reused.] "Are the design phases carried out here as well as the manufacturing processes?" [Yes, in Building 83. We can't go in there, though. You know, "top secret" stuff going on there.] Darn.

There was a section of the factory that is set aside for working artists; they can spend 2-6 months at Kohler and use the factory resources to create any artwork they want-- mainly sculptures. I reminisce about my high school days in my pottery and sculpture classes, and I have a yearning for an opportunity to sculpt artwork using Kohler's resources.

I was wowed and impressed by the tour (as was Justin) and now have a greater appreciation for sinks and toilets. After the two and a half hour tour, we left to eat lunch, then return to the Kohler Design Center to finish our look around from yesterday. The showrooms on the upper level were great; they were set up similar to IKEA's showrooms, showing off the different styles of sinks, showers, tubs, toilets, faucets, and more. I took many pictures. I want to own Kohler kitchen and bathroom products.

But above all, I want to design for Kohler!

(written by Justin)

The factory tour was amazing, I wish all industries had such informative and engaging tours available.  I have an entirely new appreciation for kitchen and bath fixtures now, and all of the hard work that goes into the making of each one.  Our 86 year old tour guide, as Jessica mentioned, was in amazing shape for his age and showed no sign of discomfort as we walked for three hours straight on concrete floors, which he does daily.  It was nice to see all of the factory workers greet him with a smile and feel the strong community bond that forms in such an engaging daily environment.  Not only did Joe know every single aspect of production of all of the items made in that factory, but he also had extensive knowledge on the production points of products that are produced in their factories all over the world

Being a part of such a small tour group, we were able to ask him a lot of questions that would have otherwise seemed disruptive - such as where he served during the war, how he met his wife who he has been married to for 65 years, and his dozens of children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  One thing he said struck me, because I had only heard it phrased exactly such a way by one other person in my life - by my mom's dad.  After reflecting on his life during all of our discussion, he said "If I could go back and do it all again, I wouldn't change a thing".  Word for word that is exactly what I heard my granddad say about four years ago (he is now 92 years old).  What an amazing thing to be able to say.  I am only 24 years old but already there are dozens of things I would like to improve about my past if given the option. Of course age plays into effect and having to face your end more realistically surely brightens the memories of the past, but there is still an undeniable sense of fulfillment that both of these men have expressed to me - something that I believe current generations are really struggling to attain (I know I am). 

I have a theory.  First they were born and raised during the Great Depression, as they reached adulthood their lives were immediately put on the line during World War II, and then they had to come home and try to forget it all and earn a living and raise a family.  Compared to my life so far, the adversity I have faced seems non-existent.  Their generation and the generation following them worked so hard to produce the America we have today with all of our luxuries and freedoms - that they left us with very little left to fight for.  A few quotes from the Last Lecture book I mentioned a few days ago: as the author was in college complaining to his mom about the extreme difficulty of the dissertation work he was doing for his PhD, his mom said "You'll be just fine, remember - when your dad was your age he was in Germany fighting Nazis". 
He also wrote about one of his favorite quotes: "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want".  How many times in my life have I not gotten what I wanted? Sure there are plenty of toys, gadgets, cars, etc that I was shut down on, but how many really important things?  How is it possible to even complain about something like this?  We have so many freedoms and opportunities that we struggle to find direction.  Instead of a life of struggling to get what you want and need for your family's safety and health, we face a life of struggling just to figure out what it is that we want.  My current strategy to overcome this is to take the authors approach and try to fulfill my childhood dreams.  I won't write about them here but it is an interesting concept to think that only with the open and unpolluted minds of our childhoods were we really capable of dreaming big and thinking about all that we could become.

One of my dreams: ride a snowmobile! Next stop - the Snowmobile capital of the World.
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bamaj1 on

Kudos to you both. I am enjoying your blog very much. The content is always interesting, but all that beer??? ROFL! You both write SO well. I am proud of you two for that.

Aunt Barb, the English Major

jandjgo on

I am so flattered that you think we write well, Barb! I confess that we are avid beer drinkers; it doesn't hurt that my current internship is designing a beer rating website. Please keep reading and posting comments!


Brian H. on

Very interesting write-up of the Kohler facility. I want to hear about the snowmobile trip next!

Jay on

oooooo toilet land!

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