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IKEA On Prefabrication

IKEA On Prefabrication
When it comes to prefabrication and on-site assembly IKEA have dominated the market.

My better half and I have just bought a house (which explains why my “weekly” posts, have not [Ed. it’s a backlog I’m working through- please bear with me…]). And like most couples, it seems, decided to test our relationship by spending seven hours in those circles of hell known as IKEA. As this is a blog about engineering, I won’t dwell on the truly amazing techniques the Swedish veneered timber export giant uses to trick the unsuspecting into spending inordinate amounts of time looking at home furnishings, but instead talk about something they do even better: prefabrication and modular design.

This isn’t the first engineering lesson IKEA has taught me; but as I spent a second day assembling flat packed furniture I began to marvel at just how well engineered their products are for assembly (no- I’m still not on commission). The fact is, IKEA has managed to achieve what civil engineering has been striving for since it’s inception- kit that can be constructed cheaply, quickly and safely by an unskilled workforce.

As it slowly became clear that my weekend would be a crash-course in IKEA assembly, I decided to see if I could learn some lessons of my own. It seems fair, considering my last article on their products, to start with the good, but it’s not all tales of wonder- after the 48 hour assembly marathon I had formed some strong opinions of where IKEA’s system is lacking; and by extension formulated some key principles to improve prefab and assembly construction.

The Good

Because IKEA is a system, it is easy to learn, and consequently improve and predict

By far IKEA’s greatest achievement is that they manage to create instructions that require no text. If you want a measure of how easy your design is to explain; consider- could you do it in a short picture manual (à la Lego), or do you need a library of 300 page documents (à la most civil engineering designs…). Unlike our B&Q fence (which came with zero instruction, pictorially or no) every step can also be completed exclusively with dry-work handtools; reducing the skill level to “following instructions”- which even an engineer can do (eventually).

For reasons of our own we ended up buying six identical shelving units. This was where IKEA really came into its own. While the first was easy enough to assemble, but by the sixth we were a well oiled machine. Because IKEA is a system, it is easy to learn, and consequently improve and predict. For simple processes this means that reliability dramatically increases in a short time and familiarity makes a smarter and more efficient workforce; let alone a safer one- if you know exactly what you’ve got to do, you can keep prepared and create a safer working environment.

Of course- the pedantic among you might argue that IKEA has an advantage- an IKEA shelving pack builds a shelf and not much else (excepting maybe a flimsy table or a fire when you get frustrated). However the observant will probably notice that IKEA reuse a lot of the base components across multiple products; much like our own modular systems- making the odd hole redundant for some configurations, but inventively reducing the number of part-lines they have to maintain (and hopefully extending the availability of spares).

Room for Improvement

For reliable construction your pieces need to be free of ambiguity, but more than that- they need to be communicable.

As someone who’s dipped a toe in the terrifying pool of temporary works, it irked me that the construction methods often resulted in unstable temporary conditions. It should not be a requirement to use your leg as a prop when assembling furniture. By extension the temporary conditions should ‘fit’ into a space similar to the installed site; no one appreciates having to relocate their bed as ‘enabling works’ for a wardrobe. And if you can’t eliminate this issue, then you should at least inform people up front: “You will require a screwdriver, six square feet of space and an unused DVD box-set to use as a prop.”

Considering my healthy distrust of instruction manuals; it is to IKEA’s credit that there was only one time when I had to disassemble and restart; I had discovered that IKEA has performed the unforgivable sin of providing two different types of fixings distinguishable only by the subtle fact that one was 7/8ths the size of the other. But there are a lot of instances of hole-counting with the kits to choose which almost identical piece of coloured chipboard you’ll need. For reliable construction your pieces need to be free of ambiguity, but more than that- they need to be communicable. If you’ve ever had to explain across the room which flat piece of wood you need, you’ll know what I mean. For this, I suggest a colour/letter system- you’ll need the Red-A, or the Yellow-B.

Which leads nicely onto my next improvement- in-line instructions. This might seem lazy- but if IKEA assembly instructions are so easy that they can be conveyed pictorially; why can’t they be on the products themselves? This has a more important ramification I noticed when moving- no one in their right mind catalogues and retains IKEA manuals; and thus, when it came to disassembling an old favourite there was a lot of improvisation– had the instructions been on the product, I would have known exactly what to do. CDM people, CDM.

One of the more bewildering parts of IKEA’s philosophy is that everyone has a hammer and screwdriver (both flathead and Philips) but doesn’t own any Allen keys. This regularly leads them to enclose sub-standard tools with their products whose only purpose is apparently to lacerate hands and fill the toolbox. This odd skill grading comes to a head when you are just expected to know the ins and outs of wall mounting fixings. If you’ve targeted the illiterate screwdriver wielding masses then you can’t simply leave them with a “now attach to the wall- no tools, instruction or fittings included.”

When it comes to prefabrication and on-site assembly IKEA have dominated the market so insidiously that if they’d included secret microphones on their products they could have given the NSA a run for their money. If a civil engineering firm could come up with the same simplicity for the built environment; well- we wouldn’t be able to move for sites filled with people despairing at instruction 15/71 because they’ve realised they need to go back and traverse the shakily propped “thing with the holes on the left” to get a Stanley #1. – and what a world that would be.

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  1. Mark

    Very well-written article. IKEA must have commissioned you with this. I do agree with what you’ve mentioned here.