Pro tip: You can often tell how long a piece of furniture will last based on how it’s put together. See any traditional Japanese joinery techniques? There’s a good chance that piece will outlast you. Flimsier connection methods–like the simple and inexpensive screws and pegs of which Ikea is fond–might not survive your next move.
A few years ago, Ikea began developing a new joinery technique called the wedge dowel to make its world of mass-produced design a bit sturdier. “It’s about finding the combination of lightness and strength,” says Anna-Karin Sjögren, a product development engineer at Ikea.
But changing even one assembly technique at Ikea is akin to developing a new chassis for a car. It takes a lot of research, development, and resources, and can fundamentally change the construction and performance of a product. It’s especially challenging at a corporation with Ikea’s global scale, where the smallest tweaks can have a ripple effect. Still, the company is faced with adapting to changing lifestyles, expanding into new markets, and pushing to make its practices more environmentally friendly, so it’s continually on the hunt for the next big idea that could potentially streamline and improve its designs.
The wedge dowel, which was first introduced in 2013, looks like a wood screw. A custom-built machine mills threads into a dowel, which then snaps into a milled slot–no extra tools or screws required. Take the Lisabo table, a minimal wood table designed to work equally well in a dining or office setting. To assemble the piece, you slot the four wood legs into place and then screw in a metal stabilizer. Only four screws are required for the entire design.
The result is furniture that, according to Ikea’s estimates, takes 50% to 80% less time to assemble than pieces with typical Ikea joinery (aka Allen wrench-induced headaches). The wedge dowel also affords owners with the ability to disassemble a piece easily and quickly–a boon when it comes to moving. “We are focusing a lot more on innovation than we have in the past,” Sjögren says. “With innovation in general, it is about making more sustainable solutions so [a piece] can live with a customer longer. We make so much furniture that we have that responsibility.”
Tweaking the supply chain at Ikea–a massive international company–is no small feat, since the company churns out tens of thousands of a single piece and ships them all over the world. Even something as small as a furniture joint requires painstaking research–prototyping a proof of concept, talking with people who understand the capabilities of suppliers to see if there are any fabricators with the machinery and know-how to replicate the new detail on a mass scale, possibly building custom machinery, and speaking with experts on the customer insights team to see if it’s something that would sell well.
Sjögren estimates that more than 60 people were involved with developing the wedge dowel and seeing how it could best complement Ikea’s business. But it began with a small group of engineers who were experimenting with techniques before they were presented to other colleagues. “At Ikea, we have this large network of people who are really good at what we do, so it’s about trying to bring in the right people at the right time,” Sjögren says. “By bringing in people you might not have thought about, you can find new and unexpected solutions . . . We have to find out which product might have the biggest potential for an idea.”
Using the wedge dowel in a table made sense because it’s a furniture type that often involves a lot of assembly and plenty of excess material for framing and braces. Since the leg would have to slot into another piece, the development team thought it would make sense to use it alongside another new development–a tabletop that looks like a solid piece of wood, which is thick enough to receive the dowel leg. The table’s designers, Knut and Marianne Hagberg, worked with the engineering team to come up with the precise angle at which the leg should meet the tabletop. One significant logistics challenge? The tabletop is made by one supplier and the legs by another. Moreover, they’re made from ash, which has slight tonal variations. While this added individuality, the designers found that using ash legs could result in a mismatched effect, so in the name of consistency they opted to use birch.
The resulting piece is clean-lined and looks like it could be used in any number of rooms and environments–aligning with what Ikea calls the “Fluid Home,” trend, or design that can be used in multiple ways and spaces since apartments are getting smaller and have less distinction between living areas. “This demands modularity and flexibility,” Sjögren says. “That’s what we’re focusing our innovation on right now.”
At the same time, Ikea is retooling as it moves into new markets. Sjögren says some of the wedge dowel’s biggest potential is in how it could be adapted to join different materials, rather than two pieces of wood. Since Ikea is expanding into India and China, it’s on the hunt for materials that remain robust in humid environments. This means alternatives to wood–which expands and contracts along with the moisture content in the air–like metals.
“It was a really fun journey,” Sjögren says of developing the wedge dowel and Lisabo. “It’s a product that looks simple and easy to understand, but it takes so much work for it to become nice, simple, and easy.”
[Photos: via Ikea]