Learning by doing

If computers and software programs can help us design practically anything, why do we still make things with our hands at IKEA?

It’s all part of our roots to be so hands-on and practical. We like working with materials, like wood, textiles, or colour, to make prototypes at our product development centre in Älmhult, Sweden.

This early prototyping process helps us understand the potential, and limitations, of a desired material; to envision a product’s overall form before we decide on how to develop further; and to get input from others.

IKEA products are still designed and developed in Älmhult today, at IKEA of Sweden. Catherina Klepper is a product developer and she loves finding solutions to everyday problems by creating physical objects.

“It brings me happiness to work with my hands,” says Catherina.

Catherina, taking part in a workshop on playfulness. Matching hat and sticky notes 💖

The journey from idea to physical object

How do you go from an idea on paper to a physical object? First Catherina begins by sketching out rough ideas; then once she has the sketch she can bring the idea to either the makerspace or prototype shop; both work areas are just steps away from her desk.

The makerspace and prototype shop offer Catherina a way to take her sketch to the next level and have a more fully realised idea to share with collaborators.

“When you work with a three-dimensional model you have the ability to physically work with someone else, get feedback and test it out,” says Catherina. “So, no matter if I start in the prototype shop or the makerspace, I get a better sense of dimensions and a different way to be creative.”

In this way, IKEA product developers can test ideas, work out issues and make the product better before they get to the factory floor.

Rapid prototypes of room dividers, made in the makerspace.

What’s a makerspace?

The newest option for product developers—and really anyone working at IKEA—to be creative and make things with their hands is in the new makerspace in Älmhult. The makerspace is one part of the co-creation lab where a combination of areas complement each other. There is an intentionally casual and social open area that’s designed to facilitate collaboration, exploration and a place to present ideas, plus workshop and prototyping areas where ideas can be further explored. Together, these areas create a place where problems are solved and ideas are born.

Justin Berger is an Open Co-Creation Leader and works with the IKEA co-creation labs (Älmhult is the first one). He explains the value of working with your hands and why Älmhult now has a makerspace.

“We want co-workers to be able to access playfulness, passion and creativity in their work,” says Justin, “and with the makerspace, we add the opportunity to do rapid prototyping early in the development process.”

Justin and some of his teammates during a co-creation workshop.

Makerspaces are not new. They have been around since the early-to-mid 2000s. The term “makerspace” was coined in 2005 by Dale Dougherty, founder and CEO of Maker Media, which publishes Make: magazine and organises Maker Faire, global events that bring together people of various backgrounds—arts, crafts, engineering, science projects—and a DIY mindset.

What drove this global movement toward makerspaces? As more and more people moved to urban spaces, there was a growing demand for access to shared tools and a place to make things, learn, explore and share—from simple flowerboxes and sewing projects to 3D printing and robotics. Concurrently, as digital capabilities increased, it fed into this growing trend toward sharing ideas. In addition to having physical makerspaces, digital makers, or “hackers,” (the good kind!) have contributed to this method of collaborative working.

Since Co-Create IKEA collaborations happen online and “offline” (in person), it made sense to create Labs where the collaborations could happen in person, and for the first one to be in Älmhult.

Justin believes that a makerspace at IKEA aligns perfectly with the IKEA culture.

“Makerspaces attract people who like to think differently and have a little bit of a rebel streak,” says Justin. Also, as IKEA gets bigger, the makerspace will further democratise the design process because the makerspace isn’t just for product developers—it’s for anyone who works at IKEA.

No matter what you’re working with, from sustainability to logistics, you can benefit from thinking with your hands as it unleashes creativity in a way that helps you solve problems.

The prototype shop

Another way Catherina likes to work is in the prototype shop. After attending training workshops, product developers and team members can go into the shop and work directly with some of the tools and machines.

“It’s good to be able to work in both spaces,” says Catherina. “I need a creative outlet and I need to be able to do things with my hands in there as well.”

A peek into everyday life in the prototype shop.

“When I work in the prototype shop I get sketches from designers and we see if it’s going to work out,” says Catherina. It’s always good to start with sketches and then go to some type of three-dimensional model because you go from something visual to something physical.”

Like Catherina, Justin also sees the importance of working with a physical model. “You can ask yourself the question, ‘As a user, how am I going to interact with the product?’ You can’t do that unless you have a physical product.”

Henrik Holmberg, Prototype Shop Manager has seen changes in the prototype shop throughout the years, especially with digital technology and 3D printing capabilities. But the process of prototyping is not new to IKEA. In fact, it’s been around since the very beginning.

“The prototype shop started in 1956,” says Henrik. “Gillis Lundgren, hired as a senior draughtsman, and the fourth employee at IKEA, started the shop when he realized he needed a place to explore his ideas. He hired a carpenter and that’s how it all started.”

The spray station in today’s prototype shop. The area for testing how prototypes look with colour or varnish.

The new prototype shop, built and expanded during a remodel in 2014, is approximately 300 square metres and has five departments: 3D printing, wood, metal, textiles and surface treatments (colours, stains and lacquers).

“Today, we can make complete solutions,” say Henrik, “from an armchair to creating metal tubes. We can take sheet of metal and bend them or treat any surface with any type of colour on any type of product. And we can 3D print anything.”

Henrik is quick to point out that the most important asset in the prototype shop is not the machinery or the tools, but the highly competent co-workers.

Not only are they experts in their fields, they have collaboration skills and the imagination to envision something that has never been made before. This unique set of skills adds a lot of value to the collaborative process with the product development teams.  

The prototype team also considers non-material consideration based on Democratic Design principles, meaning the product combines form, function, quality and sustainability—all at a low price. Everyone collaborating on the product development process will bring these principles and practices into the conversation and asking questions is a natural part of the development process: Will it consume too many resources? Does it use too much energy? If we use wood, can we re-plant it at the same pace that we are harvesting it? Is it helping our customers use less water or energy and create less waste?

Creativity can strike at any time so there is an open-door policy in the prototype shop.

“We have a lot of spontaneous meeting,” says Henrik. These meetings spark creativity so the prototype work environment is deliberately informal and accessible.

“It’s not unusual for a product developer to walk in with a sketch on a napkin after fika,” he says.

An example of the kind of sketches product developers take into the prototype shop.

It’s this combination of creativity, collaboration and hands-on prototyping that makes the development of an IKEA product exciting. But it’s not really new for a company that’s built a reputation on innovation and a belief that people are capable of anything once they put their mind (and hands) into it.