By Tom Still

RACINE, Wis. — Most of us don’t give any thought to the garbage disposal in our kitchen. The people at InSinkErator in Racine do that for us every day.

After touring the company’s five-year-old headquarters and testing center near Racine, I came away knowing some talented people think daily about what we might throw down the disposal — even if the rest of us don’t.

A sophisticated sound studio to measure disposal vibrations, 3-D printers to fabricate parts for next-generation machines, and test kitchens stocked with food items for grinding experiments are all part of the innovation process at InSinkErator, which has been making units for 85 years.

The tour, which took place before a meeting of The Water Council, was just one example of Wisconsin “know-how” I encountered in the past week or so through similar visits or conversations. It reinforced the notion that people in the state are pretty good at making things — or thinking of ways to make them better.

At InSinkErator, for example, the drive to make disposals tougher and quieter goes beyond what consumers want to see and hear. There is an environmental component tied to keeping food waste out of landfills, where it creates methane with 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide once it reaches the atmosphere.

“Throw everything down there” was the mantra of company executives on the tour. Why? Food waste piped to a municipal water treatment plant gets broken down through an anerobic process that doesn’t create methane.

Manufacturing in Wisconsin is alive and largely well because other companies, including legacy firms, are adapting to the changing needs of customers and society alike.

Wisconsin routinely ranks among the nation’s top three states for per capita employment in manufacturing — Indiana and Pennsylvania are the other two — with nearly one in five private workers employed in the sector. That’s in part because many manufacturers in Wisconsin, large and small, lever technology and research to make them more competitive.

Wisconsin is one of the nation’s metal fabrication hubs. Using less energy and water, and removing solvents before that water is released, is an industry challenge being met. Paper and pulp making hasn’t always had the greatest track record in terms of use and treatment of water, but modern plants such as Green Bay Packaging have been certified as having a “net-zero” water footprint.

Some global manufacturers based in Wisconsin have adopted water reduction goals as a part of their state-based production but also for places around the world that are classified as “water-stressed.” For example, Kimberly-Clark’s “Ambition 2030” plan calls for reducing the water footprint in mills located in water-stressed areas by 50% over a 2015 base year.

For most companies, it’s not just because they believe federal or state regulations will come crashing down on them if they fail to do so. It’s also good for business. As water and energy become more expensive commodities, careful use of both is better for the bottom line.

Wisconsin is water-rich in many ways, but its economy is built on some sectors that are heavy users. In fact, some of the world’s leading water-use industries — agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, consumer products and even parts of biotechnology — are Wisconsin staples.

If the national effort to “on-shore” manufacturing of semi-conductor chips continues, Wisconsin remains a potential site for such a production facility. Chip-making requires a lot of clean water; by some estimates, large plants can use up to 10 million gallons per day. Although almost all that water is eventually returned, it’s no small amount.

Whether it’s imbedded in your next garbage disposal unit or other products you use every day, innovation in manufacturing is an often invisible hand that helps in more ways than one.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at