Prototyping: past, present and future
Two things happened in 1956. The Eurovision Song Contest was held for the first time in Lugano, Switzerland and a man named Gillis Lundgren established the IKEA Prototype Shop. We met with Henrik Holmberg, who is responsible for the Prototype Shop and designer Andreas Fredriksson to talk about this magical place where ideas materialise into objects.
Nothing is more visible and easy to understand than the product when it’s alive.
There are fifteen Prototype Engineers working in here full-time, twelve men and three women. They turn an idea into something you can hold in your hands. Prototype Engineers have a rare combination of abilities; knowledge about materials, construction and practical skills. They have to have a passion for product development and be curious. ”Those that say they know everything, I am a bit cautious of,” says Henrik.
IKEA buys the machines, but they can’t buy insight. “I will never get into a situation where we get 100% products from what we do, because if we did that we would never challenge ourselves,” says Henrik. And it’s being able to translate these “failed challenges” from one context to another that is so integral to the IKEA product development process.
IKEA calls this designing on the factory floor. With suppliers all over the globe, it’s been valuable to bring the factory-floor to Älmhult. An idea precious to Ingvar Kamprad, “it’s his baby, his life’s work, he loves to come in and see what’s going on” says designer Andreas Fredriksson. But the designers do actually go out and work on the factory floor and meet the suppliers. As Andreas says, “it’s super important because that’s where they do it, that’s where it happens.”
How it fits into the design process
Andreas Fredriksson is an in-house designer at IKEA. He is a trained carpenter and cabinet maker who had his own studio in Lund, southern Sweden, for four years. When he wanted to decide what objects clients had in their homes instead of spending all his time building them, he decided to go to design school.He’s been working at IKEA, off and on, for ten years now. When organising to spend time in the Prototype Shop without a Prototype Engineer, Henrik Holmberg says, “if Andreas is with you, he knows the deal.”
With circular saws hanging on the walls and industrial machines, dangerous looking machines (with risk evaluations listed on a piece of paper stuck to the side), spaced roughly 5 metres apart, it feels good to have someone like Andreas with us.
All designers use the Prototype Shop in some way. The Prototype Shop is a part of Andreas’s design process. As he says, “a lot of people have ideas, which is great, but if you work as a designer, then I think it’s important that you know what is possible to make.” He knows that there are many different ways to design, but for him the hands-on part is important. “Everybody works in computer programs, and you can make anything in those computer programs but how is it connected? It starts with a sketch, but ends with the details,” he says.
Andreas feels very comfortable working with wood and in the spirit of prototyping adds: “but if we’re not thinking about finished products then metal is fantastic as you can weld up things very fast, and it doesn’t have to look so nice, you can just get the rough shape.” Using a 3D printer to “go down and make up a rough chair in one day” is another way he uses the Prototype Shop. It’s not always important to use the right materials when building a prototype, but being able to create one quickly, speeds up the design process. Natural fibres are something Andreas discovered when he started working with at IKEA.
The first thing Andreas does when he gets a brief is to analyse it. Briefs come in all forms here at IKEA, for example with the VALLENTUNA sofa, all they were told was to develop a sofa. It was up to the design and product development team to decide what kind of sofa they would be developing.
Playing to find solutions
Everything here in the Prototype Shop is at the ideas stage. When we bring out our camera, one of the Prototype Engineers stops what he’s doing. Henrik says it takes a well-trained eye to find anything of value in a picture but in the wrong context it can severely damage the IKEA product development process. At the moment, they’re sitting on some pretty big solutions. We ask if he can talk about them, he fires back a short “no.”
The wedge dowel, the click function that reduces assembly time for customers dramatically, is one of these big solutions that was not only developed in the Prototype Shop, the idea came from two of the Prototype Engineers. No brief, no product or business area in mind – just curiosity to see how far an idea could go, and this idea is going far. Henrik says it was the best decision he ever made to let Prototype Engineers Anders Eriksson and Göran Sjöstedt pursue this idea that’s revolutionising flat-pack construction.
“In here we just play to find solutions,” says Andreas. If they hadn’t had the machines then they would never have been able to develop the wedge dowel in the same way. Even if they cost a lot, they earn the money back quickly if something as successful as the wedge dowel ends up being the result.
The daily routine
There aren’t many people that can say they’ve told Kanye West that he’s not allowed to take pictures, but Henrik Holmberg, he can. Henrik takes his job very seriously. Not even Kanye can get away with taking a snap.
It’s a good thing he takes his job seriously, when you hear about a product recall, you don’t think about the impact this has on IKEA co-workers. “My biggest disappointment is when we fail when we see products that need to be returned because they are not safe. It hurts us because we have not succeeded with our mission. We take it very seriously; we put in a lot of people to find out how that can never happen again,” says Henrik.
A group of IKEA co-workers are crowded around computer screens; they insert something into a medieval-looking instrument. “Are you ready?” Pop. Then they start discussing. “We are more and more focused on innovation and exploring the unknown, more than we have ever before,” says Henrik in passing. Wouldn’t you just love to know what it is that they are developing, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
The Prototype Shop is the beating heart of IKEA. The work done in here spreads to IKEA stores and customers all over the world.
Designer Marianne Hagberg comes in, chuckles a little at the portrait we’re taking of Henrik. She’s here to try out some leather handles on a wooden cabinet. A blind cabinet, you can’t open the drawers, but important to get an understanding of the proportions. Why spend a week building fully functional drawers when you don’t need it.
Henrik points to a sofa in the corner of the textile department, “five or six years ago; that looked like” and then points to a sofa made of particle board, springs, metal tubing and some stuffing. The innards of a sofa-bed. “Now, we’ve sold over a billion pieces.” A billion.
The Prototype Shop is the beating heart of IKEA. The work done in here spreads to IKEA stores and customers all over the world. “But it’s not only us,” says Henrik, “it’s within all IKEA, in how we work together. It’s when we get together we become strong and make the magic you can say.”