IKEA didn’t come up with the idea of packing and shipping furniture in flatpacks. But it was IKEA that took flatness to a whole new level and made it the linchpin of a revolutionary business model that let customers do the assembly themselves.

The very first example of flatpack furniture is said to be the Thonet chair. It was created in the mid-19th century by Michael Thonet in the eastern part of the Czech Republic, then Austria-Hungary. However, this chair was not delivered directly to private customers, but packed and shipped in large quantities. In the early 20th century the technique developed slowly but surely, primarily in Central Europe. In Sweden, the first flatpack furniture series was Triva in 1944. It was produced and sold with no great success by the prestigious Swedish department store Nordiska Kompaniet, known as NK. Around the same time, Ingvar Kamprad was getting his new mail order company, IKEA, off the ground. He had just started moving away from pens and nylon stockings to furniture, and was annoyed by the expensive, complicated distribution process. In addition, the products were often damaged during transport, especially the tables.

Ingvar got the idea for flatpacks and customer assembly from a supplier in Hultsfred, Sweden called Ovendals. They showed him an unusually sturdy table with a new kind of fitting that made assembly easier for the customer. It marked a turning point. The 1953 IKEA catalogue introduced three tables, DELFI, RIGA and KÖKSA. Products that were assembled at home were the solution that enabled rational distribution, and thereby really low retail prices for the customer.

It is probably hard for people today to understand how radically different IKEA was to traditional furniture dealers in the 1950s. If you wanted quality furniture, you had to go into a shop, choose a product, and then wait many weeks or even months for delivery. So it was quite revolutionary when, in the 1950s, IKEA published its catalogue offering furniture of good quality at low prices with fast delivery, directly from the factory.

Flatpack Challenge

Challenge yourself in our game. The idea is to fill a pallet as high and as densely as possible with flatpacks.

Planning starts at the drawing board

During the great expansion of IKEA in the 1960s and ’70s, some growing pains led to a loss of control over the supply chain. For a while, the flatpacks gained a poor reputation, as there was often a screw or some other important piece missing. Stressful assembly, sometimes accompanied by incomprehensible instructions, was a source of frustration in many homes. A concerted effort was needed to bring order to both the packing and the assembly instructions.

Nowadays, product developers and designers puzzle out the logistics from the beginning, on the drawing board. Working out how all the pieces of a product can be packed as densely and as flat as possible is an integral part of the assignment. Designers are often forced to sacrifice a detail or change the shape, however much they love it, so that a chair or lamp can be manufactured, stored and shipped at the lowest possible cost. The process should be as airtight as possible from forest to factory to the customer’s home.

Low red metal cabinet with two doors and grey legs.
Right from the drawing board, product developers and designers think about how the new product can fit into a flatpack on a pallet. They start from the classic Euro pallet, which measures 120x80 cm. When the PS metal cabinet was designed in the 1990s, for example, the parts were allowed a maximum total size limit of 119x38 cm. With the outer packaging, the flatpack fit perfectly onto the pallet.

From cardboard into the unknown

Erik Olsen, now leading the work at IKEA to find brand new solutions to the packaging challenges of the future, explains that good packaging should protect the product, but only exactly as much as is needed. It’s about saving resources and making it easy for the customer to open the packaging and then recycle it. IKEA flatpacks have been made from cardboard for decades – one of few materials that are globally recycled.

“There’s also a good infrastructure in place for collecting and transporting the recycled material to paper mills,” says Erik. “We are experts at cardboard, but what alternatives will be available in five or ten years’ time? We’re looking for future materials, and also ideas on how we can use less material but still provide the same level of protection and safety. We want to help bring about a more sustainable industry standard,” Erik explains.

“Our size is both an advantage and a challenge.”

Needless to say, the fact that IKEA needs huge volumes of packaging affects its efforts to find new solutions. “Our size is both an advantage and a challenge,” says Erik. “We’re big enough to be able to help move the industry in a more sustainable direction. Having said that, bearing in mind the volumes we use at IKEA, it would be hard to replace a material like cardboard overnight.”

Parts of a blond wood piece of furniture carefully packed in a flatpack box with the top open.
Clever logistics and transports lower costs and is also better for the environment.

For prices and the planet

The fact that the customer does some of the work is still very important for the low prices at IKEA. Smart distribution and stock management reduce costs further. Flat, densely packed, stackable packages are also better for the environment, since far more of each product can fit into trucks and containers, railway carriages, warehouses and IKEA stores. This means fewer lorries on the roads, and lower environmental impact. This all helps to achieve the goal of reducing emissions for all transport along the entire IKEA supply chain by at least 70% by 2030. So when you finally get your flatpack home and open it, you are part of the solution – for you and the planet.

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