Franziska Wülker: From Duravit to designing a space toilet

As part of our celebration of the women helping to drive the KBB industry forward, Rebecca Nottingham speaks to Franziska Wülker about her role as a development engineer at Duravit and how she designed a space toilet for NASA.

Q: What made you pursue a career in engineering? And, what made you bring that expertise to the bathroom industry?

A: As a child I loved taking things apart to find out how they worked and how they looked from the inside. I liked to reassemble them – which, I admit, didn’t always work out – or building something new with the parts. I was interested in maths and physics so mechanical engineering fit the bill. 

What I like about bringing my engineering skills to Duravit – and the bathroom industry as a whole – is that I work to develop products that people really need and use every day. It’s great that we connect the practical with comfort and design. Furthermore, as an engineer in the bathroom industry, my work is very varied and has an impact on the whole product, not just a small aspect of it. It’s a great incentive to push yourself when you know your role makes a real difference to the end product.

Q: Can you explain how your role at Duravit helps bring products
to market?

A: Our ambition at Duravit is to always offer the best designs. That’s why we always try to be one step ahead and also think sustainably. 

I work in research and development and my main responsibility is the development and optimisation of our flushing technology. Or to be a little more direct: I make sure that our toilets flush properly. That might sound easy, but it really isn’t. 

There is a variety of norm criteria that you have to meet so that you can sell a product – and this can change from market to market. In addition to meeting the norm criteria, as a brand we obviously want our toilets to perform as well as possible every day. For example, we want to avoid that you have to flush twice. To achieve an optimal flushing performance, I use computational fluid dynamics. That means that I flush the toilet digitally, to ascertain that our toilet bowls have the best possible geometry for flushing while also considering
the design. 

Q: Engineering and the bathroom industry itself are both very male-orientated, what do you feel you bring to the role as a female? 

A: I see problems from a different perspective. I might find a task which requires a lot of physical strength more difficult to perform. As a consequence, I am more likely to think about a solution as to how this task can be solved using less strength. That is just one obvious example but there are a lot more. In my opinion, it is always good to have mixed teams in order to make great products. 

Q: How do you feel the bathroom industry benefit from having more women in engineering and product design roles?

A: It would increase diversity which, in turn, would help create better products.Especially when you think about the bathroom, men and women, young and old, will have different needs. A mixed team is more likely to bring all those needs together and create a product that is great for everyone. A man will probably have difficulties desiging a product specifically for women and vice versa.  

Q: Do you feel you have a role to play in encouraging more women to pursue this career?

A: Yes, absolutely. One point that I think is important is visibility. This applies to all ‘typically-male’ and ‘typically-female’ jobs. If you are a girl and only know of male engineers, you are less likely to even consider becoming an engineer. The same goes for men looking to work in industries dominated by women. 

Q: What advice would you give to women who are aiming for similar roles in the industry?

A: Don’t be intimidated by discouraging comments and team up with your colleagues. They have been new to the role and the industry at some point and will probably understand the challenges you face.

Q: What has been your biggest achievement during your time
at Duravit?

A: My most special achievement so far has been that I came third – out of 20,000 applications – in NASA’s recent ‘Lunar Loo challenge’. The task was to develop a toilet that would work both in weightlessness and in lunar gravity (which is about a sixth of the gravity of the earth).

This was an extremely challenging task as you can’t simply flush the toilet as you normally do. Water is a much too precious resource to be used for flushing in space and in weightlessness a gravitational flush would not work at all. Therefore, I had to rethink everything I know about flush technology. I specifically designed my toilet design so it’s comfortable for male and female astronauts to use. It uses air suction to remove excretions directly from the astronaut’s body and a centrifuge to transport them to a tank where they can be stored safely.

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