How an impossible task needed an impossible solution.

What do you do if you are told to do the impossible? Say no? Well, in this particular case it wasn’t an option for Paulina Pajak. She is a Product Developer in the Lighting department, which develops the global IKEA product range. The person looking for the impossible was IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, who walked into the department and said: “We’re going to sell LED bulbs for less than one euro.”

But before we meet the very troubled Paulina Pajak, let’s have a quick look at the environmental aspects of using LED bulbs. Most people in the world agree that energy consumption must decrease if we are to reach the climate target we are aiming for. So in 2011, IKEA decided to phase out all other light sources and since 2016 IKEA stores only sell energy-efficient LED lighting. This is the obvious consequence of the idea to create a better everyday life for the many people.

To do that properly, we need to give everybody the opportunity to make a sustainable choice. And how do we do that? By offering as great LED bulbs as possible, at such low prices that as many people as possible can afford to buy them. Making expensive bulbs, only affordable for the few, doesn’t make any sense at all. Since energy consumption must decrease, volume is key. And a low price is the enabler here.

Product designers Victor Zeng, Magdalena Pinczakowska and Paulina Pajak stand huddled together, examining parts of LED bulbs.
Victor Zeng, Magdalena Pinczakowska and Paulina Pajak at the Lighting department looked at everything. Parts, design and production – they turned every stone to see how they could rationalise and keep costs down, without affecting the quality. But it was genuinely impossible to get below one euro fifty.

Back to Älmhult, and Paulina and her team. “We heard that Ingvar kept asking, ‘When can we have the one euro bulb?’ and at the same time we felt it was impossible in so many ways. Technically for one, but we also felt that we lacked the inspiration to develop this light bulb. Working with lampshades and lamp bases was in our view so much more rewarding. So much more visible. We really had to work hard to get enthusiastic about this.”

Paulina realised that they had to question everything. “Think new. Think efficiency in production. Think new materials. Think about the whole value chain. Think. Think. Think! As I look back at this project I think the biggest obstacle was to change our mindset, more than anything else. We were thinking traditionally as we tried to balance the tricky equation between form, function, quality, sustainability and low price. We had to think different to solve this.”

“The biggest obstacle was to change our mindset.”

The development team struggled with every possible little detail until they were close to giving up.

“We looked at everything, from parts to design and production, to see how we could streamline and keep costs down without affecting the quality.” She sighs and continues. “But it was impossible to get under one euro fifty cents. And I mean impossible!”

Close-up of screwdriver and LED lamps, some disassembled, are scattered on a grey table top.
Ingvar’s coming, hide!
Paulina Pajak, with head buried in arms, lifts head slightly and looks at LED bulb and bulb parts scattered on grey table.
EUR 1.86, not OK.
Paulina Pajak, resting chin on hands, looks at LED bulb parts scattered on grey table top.
Paulina Pajak looking intently at LED bulb and LED bulb parts scattered on grey table.
EUR 1.58, not OK.
Paulina Pajak, sitting at grey table scattered with LED bulb parts, has picked a part and examines it closely.
EUR 1.32, not OK.
Paulina Pajak, sitting at table scattered with LED bulb parts, holds one part and points to another, making a pensive face.
EUR 1.18, not OK.
Paulina Pajak sitting at table with LED bulb parts, has picked up one part, smiles and holds up a finger triumphantly.
Paulina Pajak, sitting at table with LED bulb parts, has picked up two parts and examines them closely.
EUR 1.07, not OK.
Paulina Pajak, smiling, sits at table scattered with LED bulb parts, holding a LED bulb and making a thumbs-up.
EUR 0.99, OK!

As the deadline came closer, Paulina and her colleagues were very close to giving up. But before accepting defeat, they decided to look at all the small details one last time. New meetings and tests were conducted, and then… it happened. “We found that by choosing parts with higher quality for the LED part, we could get rid of certain parts in the bulb’s power supply, and thereby end up with a lower end cost,” Paulina explains. Fewer, but multitasking parts, that were more expensive actually resulted in a lower overall cost. And the IKEA LED bulb did end up costing one euro. “I hope that made Ingvar happy,” Paulina concludes with a laugh.

Close-up of parts from two dissassemled LED bulbs.
Fewer, but multitasking parts, that were more expensive was the solution. Sounds simple, but it was almost impossible to figure out.
Close-up of LED bulb.
An LED bulb uses about 85% less energy than a traditional bulb. This means that if a city with seven million inhabitants would switch completely to LED, it would use the same amount of energy for its lighting as a city of only one million inhabitants that use other types of light sources. EUR 0.99, 2017.


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