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Anatomy of an IKEA product

What does it take to get a chair from the design table into your living room? reporter Daniel Terdiman takes a look.

After building a lot of IKEA products, I decided to find out what's behind the Swedish company's design process.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Over the years, I've bought and built a lot of IKEA products: chests of drawers, office tables, bedside stands, media centers, glassware cases, and so forth.

Once, to make a little money, I even hired myself out to build some bookcases for a busy friend.

IKEA, as you probably know, is a furniture-retailing-industry phenomenon; millions of people buy its products because they're generally inexpensive and easy to put together. Plus, they almost universally come with everything you need to get going.

Almost every time I've put together an IKEA product, I've wondered as I sifted through the bolts, screws, and Allen wrenches: how do they design these things?

Well, one of the great things about being a journalist is that you get to ask such questions, and so I finally called IKEA and posed it. The answer, as you might figure, is rather complex, as I learned from IKEA product developer June Deboehmler and public relations rep Marty Marston.

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"When we decide about a product, we always start with the price," Deboehmler said. "Then, what is the consumer need?"

For example, the product designers might begin thinking about designing a new flat-screen-television stand. Assuming that there's evidence such a product is needed--like a trend of many people buying flat-screen TVs--IKEA will set out to design it.

"When we start in the development process, we say we'd like to have a cabinet to hold a large screen TV that's 42 inches, and priced out to come in at X dollars," Marston said. "OK, now we've said we want it to retail at $500, arbitrarily. What can you make, what can you design, to make it at that price?"

From the beginning of the process, a variety of people get involved. Those include field technicians who are able to see what's needed in the creation of a new product and determine if IKEA has already designed something similar that can be mined for parts or design inspiration.

Another example is a packaging technician.

"They're always part of the team from way at the beginning, when the product is designed," Deboehmler said. "We always have to find the smartest way to do something so that it can be flat-packed and minimize waste of space when transporting."

Deboehmler and Marston used a recently designed product, the $139 Lillberg chair, to explain.

In the beginning, at the concept stage, the developer gives the lead designer what's called a "brief" on the new product.

"We give them all the parameters for everything the product should achieve," Deboehmler said, "the costs, the look, the style group, that kind of thing. Then we have a brief discussion, and then give them time to go away to create sketches...Then we sit down and do the real drawings we work from."

From there, Deboehmler, a lead designer, a packaging technician, and a field technician traveled to an IKEA factory in Lithuania and began work on the product on the factory floor itself.

With the Lillberg chair, the idea was to build a prototype at the factory--which the team did--and then to see what they had on their hands.

"After many, many days of trials, we thought we had it right," Deboehmler said. "'OK, this is the product.' Our designer was on his hands and knees. Then we got it back to (IKEA headquarters in) Sweden and started taking it apart again, and decided we can make it better because we can fit more in the package if we changed the arm direction."

In its Lillberg chair, IKEA decided to use a process called the IKEA

By making a small tweak in the angle of the chair's arm, she elaborated, the designers and packaging technician figured out they could get more of the chairs in a single shipping container, and that, in the end, meant a lower cost to the consumer.

"The arm (change) meant huge savings," she said.

That's the sort of tweak that evolves organically from the design process, and may be impossible to discover until the team is well past the conceptual stage.

"When you see something on paper, it looks great," Marston said. "But it's not until you touch it that you say, 'Aha, if you turn it this way, we could get 10 arms out of this length of wood instead of 7."

The Lillberg chair took the design team about 10 months from concept to completion, including manufacturing time and global shipments.

That's about how long it takes for most new IKEA designs, Deboehmler said. An exception is lighting as that requires going through lighting tests for each country a new light will be sold in.

Another major consideration in the design process is minimizing waste.

"The whole idea of waste is very much embedded in our culture," Marston said, "not only in product development, but in all the various functional (areas of IKEA). We are so against wastefulness. It's very much a Scandinavian thought behavior.

"When some of our teams go to factories, we always look at areas where we throw things away," she said. "Sometimes we say, 'Wait a minute, we can do something with this.' And we turn things upside down and inside out to see if we can do it better."

Karlstad, Malm, Noresund...
IKEA doesn't sell anyone else's products: almost everything is designed in-house. So how to explain names like Lillberg, Karlstad, Malm, Noresund, Ljusdal, and Tryggve?

Deboehmler said many, including the company's chair and sofa products, are named after Swedish towns. "So when you're driving around in Sweden," she laughed, "you suddenly see this town name that's a sofa."

And what of the range of hardware that's used to put IKEA products together? There are seemingly dozens of different screws, bolts, fasteners, studs, and so forth.

In fact, Marston said that IKEA tries to minimize the amount of hardware used in product designs. In part, that's because many products are made in multiple factories serving many countries.

"A number of years ago," Marston said, "somebody had the bright idea that if we narrowed down our catalog of hardware that we use in our products, then we can be even more efficient."

The design teams also look for ways to make the products stand out.

That's why when designing the Lillberg chair, the team chose to incorporate what is called a "dovetail joint," which involves two pieces of wood that interlock using fingers of wood pushed together.

"It's quite a difficult thing to do on a production line," Deboehmler said. "We didn't know if we could pull it off, but we managed."

And the advantage of doing so?

"It's a design feature on very high-end furniture," Marston said, "and someone who has knowledge of high-end furniture would recognize that as an attribute."

The company is also looking for ways to maximize warehouse efficiency.

"We have (only) two pallet sizes," Marston said, referring to the wooden platforms on which goods are placed. "Our warehouses are dimensioned and designed to hold these two pallet sizes. It's all about efficiencies because that helps keep the price of innovation down."

At some of its warehouses in Europe, IKEA uses robots to move products around, even doing things like taking them off of very high shelves. IKEA

In Europe, some IKEA warehouses utilize robots to "pick the goods," a term of art for grabbing products off very high shelves.

These factories, Marston said, are dark, since no lighting is needed for the robots, and run 24 hours a day, picking and moving goods around.

"You (can) stand on a catwalk," she said, "and you look out at this huge warehouse with 12 pallets (stacked on top of each other) and this robot's running back and forth running on electronic eyebeams."

At any given time, Deboehmler said, IKEA will likely be in the process of creating 5 to 10 new products, some of which are for the current year, and some for next or the one after that.

"It's an ongoing process," she said. "There's no real beginning and end to the year cycle. It's continual."