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Uncover the mysteries of flatpacks

Updated Wednesday 31st January 2018

Flatpack - does the word strike fear or joy in your heart? Julian Cooper investigates the history of the mysterious flatpack. 

Michael Thonet, Konsumstuhl Nr. 14 Creative commons image Icon Holger.Ellgaard - Own work under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license Michael Thonet's iconic No.14 chair I suspect that the word flatpack strikes a sense of fear in many of us. It’s not so much the flatpack itself; it’s about what happens when we have to unpack it and are confronted by all the pieces, (which we last saw in one piece in the store or online), together with bags of connecters and pages of instructions. 

So why do so many - and it is many (IKEA stores in the UK contributed £1.9b to their global profits in 2016 with a significant proportion of that being in flatpack form products) buy our products in this way?  What is it about flatpacks that makes us continue taking on the challenge and hoping to conquer our fears?

The production methods that helped lead to the flatpack delivery phenomenon have been around for a long time. One of the first examples was Michael Thonet's iconic No. 14 chair, first mass-produced in 1859. Made of eight pieces of steam-bent wood and ten screws, crucially it could be shipped disassembled to save space in rail boxcars.

By the 1890s, the US retailer Sears Roebuck was selling mass-produced products for mail-order, everything from guns to furniture and in 1908, they began selling complete houses in flatpack form. Over the next thirty years, Sears Roebuck sold 70,000 25-ton units. Again, each kit was shipped by boxcar, complete with all the parts needed to complete the build. However, it seems Sears Roebuck did not spot the opportunity to extend flatpack delivery to smaller items such as furniture.  

We can see already some of the early drivers for what would come to be known as flatpack (also known as knock-down) design and delivery. The ability of manufacturers and retailers to mass-produce products, meant that the logistics cost of delivery to stores and customers across the country and even abroad was becoming a crucial factor in developing and maintaining a profitable business1.

Ikea employee delivering flatpack boxes to a family Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: IKEA, Ikea Asset Bank Whilst we can find several examples of the early implementation of mass-produced products designed for flatpack delivery and self-assembly, the generally accepted opinion was that this process had its origin in Sweden. The Swedish designer Gillis Lundgren is today celebrated for developing and implementing the process in the early 1950s, although he acknowledges his countryman, Fiolke Ohlsson, has patented a ready-to-assemble chair some years before in 1949. Working with IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, Lundgen began developing his flatpack idea – triggered it seems from having to remove the legs from a table to fit it into his car – becoming the business model that has proved crucial to IKEA’s decades of success.2

The basics of self-assembly design have been improved over the years, with increasing reliance on highly sophisticated computer driven design and engineering. According to Object Guerilla:

 "...from an engineering view, IKEA's hardware is ingenious, combining simple tools with self-registering systems that (hopefully) force pieces into alignment as they are assembled…. There are three basic sub-systems: screws, barrel bolts (inline and perpendicular), and dowels or tacks. 

IKEA's system is one approach, honed through seventy years of iteration, that works on a giant corporate scale. However, the world of flat-packery includes designs fastened with screws, zipties, pegs, pins, ratchet straps, and, for the adventurous, nothing at all." 3

The benefits of the flatpack model were, and still are significant for companies such as IKEA, encouraging volume production, where flatpack storage and then transportation costs can be minimised, handling becomes easier and breakage costs are reduced.

Some would argue the downsides are all for the customer, however the use of self-assembly flatpack design enables manufacturers to keep prices low and customers can gain immediate gratification from collection. Perhaps there is also a sense of achievement and ownership that come from successfully completing a self-assembly product!

Despite the potential benefits to the manufacturer and retailer of flatpack, we have seen significant failures of companies known for their flatpack credentials. Take the example of MFI, founded in the UK in 1964 by Noel Lister and Donald Searle, aiming to exploit the gap in the market for self-assembly furniture. At one point, MFI had expanded to become the largest self-assembly furniture retailer in the country, acquiring well known flatpack brands such as Hygena on the way. By 2006 however, MFI was sold for the nominal sum of £1 to a private equity firm.4

Self-assembly, flatpack design can now be found across many industries. Looking back to those surprisingly early US flatpack houses, this industry has grown significantly, with a significant boost in the UK after the Second World War. With housing in short supply, flatpacks were imported from Sweden to boost the numbers being produced in the home market. You can see some of these on the Prefab Museum which is a living history online museum about Britain’s post-war prefabs. Today we can even find TV programmes about self-assembly homes. ‘My Flat-Pack Home’ on Really TV, features people building their own prefabricated houses.  

The Swedish social enterprise Better Shelter has developed a self-assembly, flatpack shelter for refugee families, in collaboration with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and funding from the IKEA Foundation. The shelter is solar powered, weatherproof and can be assembled without tools and is made of recyclable plastic and a galvanised steel frame, with an expected lifespan of three years.

Image of a better shelter Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Better Shelter A Better Shelter

The shelter is delivered in two cardboard boxes, which have been packed to reflect the order in which components will be used when building. The two boxes can be lifted and built by four people in four to eight hours. Whilst costing more than refugee tents, the shelter offers important benefits the tents don’t, such as durability, privacy and security. 5

With similar aspirations, but in vehicular rather than building form, the OX is manufactured in the UK. The aim is to provide a simple, cost effective vehicle that can cope with the needs and road conditions of the developing world and Africa in particular. Three OX prototypes have been built by so far and put through rigorous testing with an investment from the Global Vehicle Trust, which claims the OX to be world’s first flatpack vehicle. The benefits of the flatpack approach means that the components and sub-assemblies of the OX fit within its own frame, with a separate transport crate for the engine and gearbox. This enables up to six OX vehicles to be transported in a single shipping container, with the assembly labour transferred to the importing country, thus reducing import taxes that exist in many countries.6

Image of an OX flatpack car Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Global Vehicle Trust OX Car

Let’s return now to that question of flatpack fear; it seems that it is real after all, according to Dr Miles Richardson, from the University of Derby, who explains that we really do struggle with flatpack assembly. 

"There is evidence that suggests that self-assembly furniture isn't just difficult to assemble, but can lead to frustration and damage to the product and injury," he says. Dr Richardson points to a 2006 survey which found that 67 per cent of 1,295 participants reported some form of difficulty during the self-assembly process. Some 40 per cent of brave souls attempting to construct a piece of furniture lost their temper before they completed it – perhaps because 33 per cent misread or misunderstood the instructions. 7

For those of us who can relate to flatpack frustrations, there is a solution at hand. Companies such as Bidvine and Flat Pack Mates and are available to take care of your flatpack and complete the build. You might wonder if the cost of using such services rather negates the reason for self-assembly flatpacks in the first place but even IKEA recognises that this is not a preferred way of shopping for all of us, offering its own delivery, assembly, and installation services.

So, it seems the ubiquitous flatpack delivery is here to stay although there are just a few clouds on the horizon. Could we one day be able to use a local 3D printing depot to build our own furniture?  

References

1 - Flat-Pack Design: Past, Present, and Future. Object Guerilla, 21 Jan 2014 [Blog]. Available at //objectguerilla.com/blog/2014/1/20/flat-pack (Accessed 24 January 2018) 

2 - Torekull,B. (2012) The Ikea Story, Comactiva.

3-  Flat-Pack Design: Methods and Materials’, Object Guerilla, 30 January 2014 [Blog]. Available at //objectguerilla.com/blog/2014/1/29/flat-pack-design-methods-and-materials Accessed 24 January 2018).

4 - Ramnarayan, A. (2008) Guardian (2008) ‘MFI: The flatpack giant that fell flat on its back’, Guardian, 26 November  [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/nov/26/mfi-furniture-high-street-retailers-recession (Accessed 24 January 2018).

5 - Better Shelter (2018) Product: Better Shelter [Online]. //www.bettershelter.org/product/ (Accessed 24 January 2018).

6 - The OX (2018) [Online]. //oxgvt.com/ (Accessed 24 January 2018).

7 -Richardson, M., Jones, G., Torrance, M., and Baguley, T. (2006). Identifying the task variables that predict object assembly difficulty. Human Factors, 48, 511-525.

 

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