A lab reconstruction of a burning cigarette lying on an orange sofa cushion.

Smoking allowed

Everything you’ve done at home, they’ve already done it here in the Test Lab. With scientific precision the technicians and engineers can predict, prevent and analyse the future lives of IKEA products. They test things you can’t see, smell things you can’t smell and break things you’d never intentionally break.

There is a mural of palm trees in the corridor of the IKEA Test Lab, which is appropriate, as you walk from lab to lab each room is a different climate zone. “You want to be in the fire-testing room in summer where it’s twenty degrees with sixty percent humidity and in the textile room in winter, twenty-three degrees with fifty percent humidity,” says Christina Nord, from the textile department.

Stefan Bertilsson is responsible for the totality of the Test Lab. He puts a lot of time and effort into supporting his team of technicians and engineers: “People are always in the centre at IKEA,” he says. And they like to stay; one employee worked in the lab for almost fifty years.

IKEA Test Lab in snowy weather.
The accredited IKEA Test Lab – regulated climate zones inside, no matter what the weather is like outside.

The Test Lab is a very different environment to the Democratic Design Centre across the road. You open a door and you see robot hands grabbing, scratching, clipping and closing. There are mechanical bottoms literally wearing out furniture. It has a different sense of focus, despite the the hissing, banging and beeping.

The first home of the IKEA Test Lab was in the basement of the first store, Testing has been at the core of IKEA operations since the very beginning. The Lab in Älmhult is expanding rapidly, reaching around thirty technicians and engineers in 2017. Stefan Bertilsson suspects they are growing out of their current premises.

Democratic Design is the anchor for IKEA design and product development: it’s the balance of form, function, quality, sustainability all at a low-price. One of testing’s roles, but absolutely not limited to, is in assuring the quality principle of Democratic Design. A general trend in the lab is that testing is coming into the design process earlier and earlier. Especially as IKEA starts looking for more sustainable material solutions.

A woman wearing a safety mask.

Christina Nord is not playing with fire.

A lab reconstruction of a burning cigarette lying on an orange sofa cushion.

Lighting fires with Stina

In 1979 Christina Nord worked in the Älmhult IKEA store selling rugs. “I’ve always been interested in working hands-on with textiles,” says Christina, so when the job came up in the Test Lab she took the chance and hopped over.  Twenty-three years later she stands in front of us wearing a fire mask and holding a long oven lighter.

Products wait for twenty-four hours in the climate zone before testing. There are shelves full of foam samples, all ready to burn in the name of safety. The tests are done to test the flammability of upholstered furniture, such as mattresses and sofas.

The first test she shows us is the crib test. The crib is the small pieces of wood glued together with a lint attached underneath, the lint is impregnated with flammable liquid and placed on a miniature sofa. Christina lights a small fire with the energy equivalent of a scrunched up broadsheet newspaper in one of the ten stainless steel ovens in the room. The fire is on a set of scales, for the material to pass the test, it can take no more than ten minutes for no more than sixty grams or its original weight and must be fully extinguished within ten minutes. Our test lasted three minutes and ten seconds and burnt forty-five grams of the product. The product passed the test.

A lab test with a flame burning by a simplified model of a sofa.
Burning the equivalent of a scrunched-up piece of newspaper.

Next, is an ignitability test. We want to see how the material reacts to a glowing cigarette. Christina lights three standardised cigarettes, made especially for testing by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the USA, not cheap apparently. There are international standards regulating the weight, length and burning speed of a cigarette. It’s not a matter of popping down to the shops to buy a packet of smokes. Christina “lights up” with the help of a “Cigg smoker machine”.  A long band can light up to six cigarettes at a time, it pulls air through each cigarette, mimicking the action of taking a drag.

The fabric we’re testing is attached to a mini sofa with bull-dog clips. Surprising that it’s simple office stationery. It has to be in the chamber for an hour. It’s rather calm and silent just watching it burn. Christina isn’t afraid of fire, but since working with it, she says she has more respect for it.

Two people sniffing contents of jars in front of a world map.
A panel of professional sniffers analysing odour samples.

Professional sniffing with Miladinca

Six professional sniffers are sitting in pairs at school-like desks. In front of each person is a frosted glass jar with alfoil sticking out from under the lid, two pieces of paper and a glass of water to clear the palette. Miladinca Bude is running today’s test; they’ll be assessing the intensity and acceptability odours emitted from recycled plastic. The desks are set out in a U-shape with windows on one side of the room. “How luxurious, only one test today,” says one of the panel members.

Then begins the choreography. The first person opens a jar and take a whiff, passes it to their partner, takes some notes, takes a sip of water and repeat. They are comparing an odour of interest with a control sample. The whole thing takes about five minutes. They then discuss. Milandinca sits quietly and watches.

“Number one, 3D, I thought it was difficult.”
“I had 4D, I thought it smelled burnt.”
“I also had 4D, then I was also leaning towards confined.”
“3D for me, old clothes, old wardrobe, a cellar.”
“Yes, exactly!”

And so it went, for the sample in the other jar. Sometimes they have to smell terrible things – all distilled into glass jars.

Some materials, for example, wood, are expected to have a natural smell. Other materials, for example plastics are not expected to have a distinct smell. Odour tests are performed to assess the smell of a product and identify the compounds causing it.

Finding molecular fingerprints with Martin

Martin is rolling on his stool with wheels from one part of his lab to another. He’s talking to us at the same time as monitoring a GC-Olfactory test, his timer is beeping at regular intervals. He doesn’t miss a beat. Martin is confirming the odour test carried out by Miladinca and the professional sniffers; he’s separating the sample into the different molecules, working out which of them is causing a particular odour. “It’s a really exciting methodology here,” says Martin.  

Molecules from a gas sample are being transported in a continual gas stream along a tiny metal pipe. The tubes are then analysed by using the thermal desorption gas chromatography mass spectrometry.

The molecules are travelling at different speeds along the pipe, some are getting trapped on the walls on the way. The molecules are split into two streams, one for simultaneous chemical identification and the other for sensory assessment of individual compounds. In other words, one stream gets registered on the computer and the other ends up in the sniff port. An assessor will sit and sniff, gathering data that helps identify the different compounds.

The speed each molecule travels helps Martin to evaluate what it is. It could be an alcohol, an alkane or any of the other 220 000 fingerprints in his database. If it’s a natural material like wood or rubber or some other plant material you would have what we call a chromo-illusion, the compounds end up at the same time.

“You cannot predict whether there is a connection between an odorous molecule and whether it is harmful,” he explains. “Things we can’t smell are harmful and things we can smell aren’t necessarily dangerous. I think it’s natural people get worried if you have an unexpected smell. We can have quite an odorous product in a store, but if you list the odour that the customer expects, then it’s usually fine.” Human behaviour, Martin thinks a lot about this.

“From our synthetic products, foams and plastics, people get worried if it smells, that’s a big influence. But they’re not dangerous. If there is a question about the odour, immediately we do an emission test to check for harmfulness, but it’s rare that you find harmful chemicals.” And it’s here that they gather the science to prove it.

A woman in a lab coat behind red-plastic curtain.
Miladinca Bude, quiet and careful in the Test Lab.

Pulling things apart with Jenny

Jenny Westerlund tests the small parts of furniture: the hinges, the handles, the glue in components, for example, the small round felt tabs you place under furniture.

She’s tall, softly spoken and likes building bikes. She told us she once rode 1,230 km non-stop, over four days, sleeping only twenty minutes at a time.

In her two by three-metre lab, she programmes the machines for testing and develops new tools. She shows us a cupboard full of tools she has designed. She’s educated as an automation engineer.

While we’re in her lab she’s testing the components that hold together drawers. They’ve been placed in different positions inside the drawers. In her hi-tech machine, she applies pressure to the drawer. Think slamming a drawer so hard that the components inside buckle, but in slow-motion.

There is a computer that gathers data in real time. It looks like nothing is happening, but we can see on the screen how many kilos of pressure are being applied. Fifty, sixty, seventy. “It’s gone through the plastic now, there is no way it can go back to its original form,” says Jenny. Then it breaks. No fireworks, no loud noise, just a small “crack”. She carefully takes it out of the machine, looks inside, and yep, it’s broken.

Jenny knows most materials quite well, but “new materials are coming in all the time, new ideas and solutions.” One of the perks of Jenny’s job is to devise new tests. Jenny was part of the team that tested the Wedge Dowel.

Taking photos with Marko

Next door to Jenny, in the same small department, is Marko Kokkonen. He also tests components, but his machine is complemented with two cameras, that can take up to six hundred images during a test.

For the camera to register the microscopic movements in the material, objects are painted in a speckled black and white pattern. The images are replicated on a grid on the computer. Marko can literally see pixel by pixel, how material changes during testing. This kind of deep analysis is impossible to see with the naked eye.

A man standing close to a window, looking through it.
Stefan Bertilsson, responsible for the totality Test lab.

The why

The Älmhult lab is set-up according to international standards. Tests can be compared with other accredited labs around the world. Hence, the carefully controlled environments. But, IKEA goes above and beyond international standards and devises its own tests and places its own stricter requirements on many products. All tests are saved for twenty-five years. If there is every a problem with a product, the first round of testing can be brought out for analysis.

If a product developer is wondering what types of hinges they should use, or textile for a specific purpose –  they can look it up in the material library and take the solution “off the shelf” – it’s been tested and approved for that specific purpose. All the departments in the Test Lab are contributing to this building this library, contributing to the efficiency and security of product development at IKEA.

Stefan Bertilsson says “if you don’t feel good when you go to work, you don’t do a good job.” And in here, in the Test Lab, we want them to do a good job, we want them to do everything perfectly. Concentration is key; it’s literally written on the walls as you walk down one of the stairwells. And Stefan is quite right that the engineers and technicians that work in the Test Lab should feel good when they go home, just like IKEA customers.