Surface treatment alcove in the Prototype Shop.
Surface treatment alcove in the Prototype Shop.

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.

Located behind a glass wall that runs the length of the IKEA of Sweden eating and meeting area is the Prototype Shop. Anyone who visits, can’t help wondering what is behind the floor to ceiling glass wall. It’s locked electronically, access only for the initiated. When we’re in, we see unopened boxes of Virtual Reality goggles on the floor. The beginnings of a virtual Prototype Shop Henrik Holmberg tells us. Soon, designers can see their products in virtual spaces before anyone has sent a file to a 3D printer.

Henrik Holmberg, responsible for the Prototype Shop, in his home territory.
Henrik Holmberg, responsible for the Prototype Shop, in his home territory.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re not even in the workshop yet, we’re in the entryway. It’s here you can pick-a-path. Do you want upholstery, wood, surface treatment, metal or 3D printing? Or the office. It’s in an airtight room next to the office we sit down with Henrik Holmberg, a former Prototype Engineer himself, born and raised in Älmhult and now responsible for the daily happenings in the workshop. When we began our reportage we expected to deep-dive into mind-blowing state-of-the-art machinery but Henrik stresses over and over again the importance of people. He shrugs off the machinery, “it’s people and patents that are super important for us.”

Layers of surface treatment.
Layers of surface treatment.

“3D printers are tools, we don’t develop 3D printers but we use the technique,” says Henrik. This distinction is important. In here they develop prototypes and find solutions. A designer can also see how it feels to sit in a chair, or hold a product, how the proportions work, how a product works in relation to other products. Functions can be fine-tuned – a few millimetres here and there can have a big impact on the manufacturing process. What is unique about the Älmhult Prototype Shop is that they have so many different areas in the one place. Roughly 2200 products passed through the Prototype Shop last year and into production.

Listen to Henrik talk about using 3D printers at IKEA (00:21)
Henrik Holmberg, making himself comfortable.
Henrik Holmberg, making himself comfortable.

It was the first designer at IKEA, Gillis Lundgren, who founded the Prototype Shop in 1956. It is one of his lesser-known contributions to IKEA (hard to compete with co-inventing the flat-pack and designing the BILLY bookshelf) and he established it so that he could use the competence of carpenters whilst designing. “Nothing is more visible and easy to understand than the product when it’s alive,” says Henrik. Seeing a design in 3D, that is an invaluable step in the design process.

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.

Listen to Henrik talk about learning from failure (00:55)

Even the building is designed to maximise efficiency and facilitate sharing. Up until a few years ago, the Prototype Shop was situated a few kilometres away. Now, it’s a short elevator ride away from the design department. And it takes up a fifth of the entire Democratic Design Centre.

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.” 

Designer Andreas Fredriksson with a thread of twisted paper, the material used in his chair RÅDVIKEN.
Designer Andreas Fredriksson with a thread of twisted paper, the material used in his chair RÅDVIKEN.

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.

Listen to Andreas talk about knowing how things are made (00:48)

He also works with the Prototype Shop engineers to push his ideas further, “this is a collaboration, nobody has right or wrong, and we have to challenge each other to get it.” He doesn’t mind having to work extra hard to prove that something is possible when a Prototype Engineer has hesitations. But he echoes Henrik when he says that “we design a lot of things, some of them don’t become anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time. That’s also knowledge, and then you bring it into something else.” If you listen to one person, it’s going to be their decisions all the time, and that’s not the IKEA way of doing things. “I like this to be a teamwork, and then we win at the end of the day. I like the teamwork,” says Andreas.

Listen to Andreas talk about collaboration (00:26)
Product development in its rawest form.
Product development in its rawest form.

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.

Listen to Andreas talk about prototyping the chair RÅDVIKEN (00:57)
An old technique – making furniture from sheets of woven paper that you can cut like fabric.
An old technique – making furniture from sheets of woven paper that you can cut like fabric.

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.

An idea that was developed in the Prototype Shop – the Wedge Dowel. A click-technique that drastically reduces time taken to assemble and disassemble IKEA furniture, as used in the LISABO table series.
An idea that was developed in the Prototype Shop – the Wedge Dowel. A click-technique that drastically reduces time taken to assemble and disassemble IKEA furniture, as used in the LISABO table series.

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.”

The team.
The team.