Assembly Blog

The Art of Manufacturing

July 18, 2014

Whenever I visit an assembly plant, I usually pay close attention to the reception and office areas. It reveals a lot about a company’s character and business philosophy.

Most plants have a small display of products and some historical photos. Some facilities feature attractive, showcase lobbies while others appear shabby. On several occasions, I’ve visited old plants that had furniture and décor that hadn’t changed since the 1940s.

But, I had the exact opposite experience recently when I visited Kohler Co., which is one of America’s oldest and largest privately held companies. Its manufacturing campus in Kohler, WI (a small village south of Green Bay) comprises a number of factories that turn out bathtubs, showers, sinks, toilets, faucets and other plumbing fixtures, in addition to small gasoline-powered engines.

The unique company has a proud heritage of design and creativity that spans more than 140 years. When I entered the lobby and office area of one of the Kohler factories, I was struck by several interesting sculptures.

After I commented on them, the vice president who I was meeting with told me about Kohler’s unique art campaign. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the company’s Arts/Industry program.

Run under the auspices of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI, the collaborative program features artists-in-residence who are interested in pushing the boundaries of their creative vision.

Emerging and established artists from throughout the world work two to six months on the plant floor alongside the men and women who produce Kohler products. The innovative residency program offers aspiring artists studio space and 24-hour access to the factory; unlimited supplies of cast iron, clay, copper, plastic and other production materials; and the technical advice needed to accomplish their project goals.

Since the program’s inception, Kohler has hosted more than 400 artists who have created all sorts of works that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to make in their own studios.

“An unexpected yet significant element of the residency has been the rapport which grows between the artists and the industrial personnel,” says Herbert Kohler Jr., chairman of the board and CEO of Kohler Co. “In addition to being a critical resource for artists, Arts/Industry has had a lasting effect on our business by stretching the capability of the factories, introducing the need for alternative technologies and presenting new possibilities in design.”

I applaud Kohler for its efforts to foster creativity and artistic freedom. Does anyone know of any other manufacturers that have a similar “art of manufacturing” program?

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