Nikolay Pishiev has spent the last decade working as a quality controller and design engineer at Ikea in Älmhult, the Swedish town where the furniture company was founded in 1943. Responsible for the overall safety, strength and stability of a production piece, Pishiev occupies a quasi-moral position in the design process. “I am responsible for creating and meeting product requirements,” he says. “I can never be too certain to succeed, but I can be pretty sure that we made an effort to predict all possible scenarios of what can go wrong with this chair.”
Imagining a quality controller in action is difficult. Most people have little sense of who they are and quality control is typically seen as a mere mechanical cog in the manufacturing process, rather than a valuable part of design production itself. To gain a sense of the work that Pishiev and his ilk perform, therefore, it is worth considering what the sociologist Richard Sennett termed an “aspiration for quality” in his 2008 book The Craftsman. “We share in common and in roughly equal measure, the raw abilities that allow us to become good craftsmen,” wrote Sennett, but “it is the motivation and aspiration for quality that takes people along different paths in their lives.” This emphasis on quality as intrinsic to successful design production is typically overlooked. The stereotype of the quality controller is of someone essentially antithetical to the design process: an expert who stands at a distance from design in order to protect the public from potential harm. Here the ‘Inspector 34’ episode of the 90s sitcom The Adventures of Pete & Pete comes to mind. When Little Pete Wrigley becomes fascinated with a quality control tag found in his new boxer shorts, he declares the inspector his guardian angel, befriends him, and then sets out on a mission to save the world by “finding defects before they become defeats.”
There are, however, challenges to this conception. In June 2016, Ikea unveiled prototypes from its 2017 collection, a series of 60 pieces manufactured using new experimental techniques and designed using reclaimed plastic and wood chips. Executed on a mass scale, the new collection is not only noteworthy for its use of previously discarded materials within the context of industrial design, but also for the manner in which it forces designers to work on an equal footing with suppliers, engineers, material experts and quality controllers during the design process. “There are so many things you can solve if you start your idea close to production,” says Marcus Engman, head of design at Ikea of Sweden. “It is about taking care of the differences of people, not only working with designers but communicators, developers and technicians.” In so doing, Ikea’s system represents a framework for understanding industrial design: using quality control as a creative force in shaping a design, with quality controllers as essential figures in turning the design prototypes into products.
The Ikea test lab is a stand-alone building in the Älmhult forest, filled with abused and stressed furniture. The main hall of the laboratory is occupied by machines that press, push and punch the beds, sofas and chairs produced by Ikea. Mechanical arms travel on rails in all directions – opened, interlocked, pushed and returned – as if engaged in a balletic performance. “There is an individual set of tests related to every product,” says Pishiev. “Tests need to be developed as you go along, according to common sense.” Quality controllers are therefore involved in analysing the strength and stability of a product in the collection at the beginning of its development, as opposed to solely running tests on an initial production run – the standard procedure of many manufacturers within the furniture industry. The advantages of this system are twofold. First, involving analysis prominently early on reduces waste in later production. Second, it is a way for Ikea to reduce the risk of potential injury to customers. This need is felt particularly keenly following the 2016 recall of 29m of Ikea’s Malm chest of drawers in North America, after three children were killed when unsecured Malm units fell on them. “Chests of drawers that are covered by the recall have been packaged with wall attachment restraints for decades,” said Ikea in a statement following the recall. “If customers have followed the assembly instructions and attached their chests of drawers to the wall, there is no need for them to participate in the recall.” But how do you foresee and subsequently prevent such risks to begin with? “Most of the time, you have the mechanical reports telling you that a product is safe, but as all products have their individual properties you have to kind of manually figure these things out,” says Pieshiev. “At a very early stage, we perform a design risk analysis: a brainstorm with a diagram where we try to identify any reason for customer injury. The scope is to use props, insights and imagination to cover all aspects of what can go wrong. We evaluate, change, re-evaluate – today it’s safety first; appearance comes after.”
One of the designers behind the new collection is Form Us With Love (FUWL), a Stockholm-based design studio which previously collaborated with Ikea on Janinge, a £40 plastic chair launched in October 2015. “With Janinge, testing and quality control went beyond the norm,” says Pishiev. “We delivered a chair that is tested to withstand 120,000 cycles of use at a very low cost.” For the 2017 collection, Ikea returned to collaborate with FUWL on two products. The first was Kungsbacka, a kitchen made using recycled materials, with a wood-chip core and a plastic foil made from recycled plastic bottles. The second is Odger, a two-part injection moulded wood-polypropylene chair that is scheduled to reach the market this autumn. Odger is a complex design, both for the way it mixes wood with industrial waste polypropylene, but also for its introduction of a four-part flatpack solution: the chair’s shell seat and leg section click onto one another with two handles that hold everything together. “We quickly understood that we had to design something that celebrated the material, through a shape that was both inviting and comfortable,” says John Löfgren, creative director at FUWL.
From the beginning of its development, the Odger chair was designed around a series of constraints developed by Pishiev and his team at Ikea. “We wanted to develop a product which would be iconic from a material point of view,” says Pishiev. “A piece that would inspire the rest of Ikea to start looking more deeply into sustainability, not only from a material but also from a production perspective.” While Pishiev’s input at this early stage of production positions him as a force for change in the design process, thereby butting against the stereotype of the quality controller, it is not necessarily counter to contemporary thought around the discipline. In 2014, the American advisory firm CEB researched the perception of quality amongst 850 employees in 60 multinational corporations. “Most notably, many of the traditional strategies used to increase quality have little effect,” CEB’s report states. “Instead, we found, companies that take a grassroots, peer-driven approach develop a culture of quality, resulting in employees who make fewer mistakes – and the companies spend far less time and money correcting mistakes.” The report’s focus on individual performance as part of quality development signifies a shift away from historical theories of the industrial quality controller: the dehumanised stereotype of “statistical quality control”, which can be traced back to the American engineer Walter A. Shewhart.
Shewhart worked at Western Electric and Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1920s, where he introduced the first ever statistical control charts to the manufacturing processes. Based on three key tenets – specification, production and inspection – Shewhart revolutionised industrial production, making employees more effective by “reduc[ing] everything possible to routines requiring a minimum amount of human effort.” Shewhart’s quantified quality theories were later supplemented by William Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran, management consultants who introduced the idea of systematic failures in the 1970s. Devising an experiment involving a bowl of white and red beads (red beads representing faulty products, white beads good quality ones) in which supervisors were given the difficult task of extracting a spoonful of only white beads, Juran and Deming demonstrated the significance of effective management of quality control at all stages of production, not just the end. While most mass manufacturers continued only to test products post-production, Japanese manufacturers took Deming and Juran’s findings and began testing for failures early in the design process, as opposed to only repairing defects. This idea later became known as Kaizen, a Japanese business philosophy focused on slow but steady performance that was introduced by the management consultant Masaaki Imai in the 1980s. Kaizen used tools such as the fishbone diagram – which was developed by the organisational theorist Kaoru Ishikawa – to offer a cause and effect analysis that was implemented from start to finish in the production line. It amounted to a qualitative approach, based on empowering employees to make changes: setting goals, measuring results, and using these results to continue to refine the quality. It is a similar philosophy to that now employed by Ikea, whose 70 development teams devote substantial resources towards preliminary quality control.
The early design routes for the Odger chair were created by FUWL and subsequently analysed using a matrix tool developed by Pishiev to assess sustainability, durability, maintenance, price, and the possibility of a flat pack solution. “We brainstorm to foresee any possibility of limb, head or finger entrapments, testing if it’s stable enough,” says Pishiev. “What happens if the customer sits on the backrest, or stands up on the chair, or if a kid is left on their own on the chair? We try to cover all the aspects, but we can never be 100 per cent sure.” Besides a dedicated quality controller, the Odger team had four years of development funding from Ikea. During this period, Pishiev was behind the decision to make a prototype mould to orchestrate the development of the chair before actual production began. “We knew that we were taking a risk with new material and construction, so we decided to make a prototype mould in order to consider the mechanical properties of the material,” says Pishiev. “It’s one thing to design a chair, but another to make it strong enough.” The first pre-production samples of the Odger chair were subsequently quality tested for durability, stability and comfort. “For instance, we discovered that one of the chairs was tipping, whereby we changed the design a bit to avoid the legs becoming too narrow,” explains Pishiev. A final mould for a plastic chair can cost more than €350,000 – an expensive mishap in the case of a miscalculated parameter – so the prototype mould was crucial for informing the team of the challenges with the initial design, as well as the behaviour of the material.
As Ikea does not own the supply chain of the waste materials involved in Odger’s production, it collaborated with an Italian manufacturer to supply the wood and the plastic, while another supplier in Germany produced the bond between the two materials. Initially, Pishiev and his team aimed for a 50/50 mix of wood and industrial plastic waste. “We wanted to show the customer that we are using a renewable material, rather than hide the wood in the plastic,” he says, but this ratio was harder to achieve than expected. “Unfortunately we could not manage the quality requirements at 50 per cent. Too much wood affected the result of the injection, and the aesthetics were not consistent in the mass production.” Eventually, the team settled for a 30/70 ratio of wood to plastic. As this material composition was new to Ikea, Pishiev had to understand its behaviour and so sent samples to a laboratory in Gothenburg, west Sweden, which simulated and analysed its properties, providing him with digital data covering both strength and aesthetics. Even the way the wood chips flow when injection moulded was modelled and shown to Pishiev using a specialised Finite Element Analysis (FEA) software, inviting further debate. Löfgren, for instance, wanted the project to expose the flow of wood fibres within the material. “When we first received the material samples, the natural wood pattern in the plastic was something that excited us, and we were drawn to create a shape that celebrated the irregular patterns,” he says. This aesthetic characteristic, however, translated into a series of durability hurdles for Pishiev, given that the flow of the plastic makes the chair stronger or weaker depending on its geometry. The chair is strongest when the fibres flow in the same direction as the shape, with the design weakening when the fibres are perpendicular to the geometry.
“Imagine that you have to build a bridge out of clay: in order to make a sound construction you first need to find out the properties of that clay,” says Pishiev. “In the case of Odger, we sent a sample of the material to the lab and asked them to make a number of different tests in order to give us enough digital data on the strength properties of this material, values we then used as input for the digital calculations that defined the design constraints of the chair.” Wood polypropylene has an obvious environmental gain in that it uses waste materials rather than virgin ones. Reclaimed polypropylene also makes economic sense at a large scale given that it is not influenced by the fluctuating prices of petroleum-based plastic, which follows the same market uncertainty as crude oil, the price of which decreased by 50 per cent, doubled, and then decreased again in the past four years alone. Wood polypropylene itself, however, is not new – it has been used for decades to reduce energy input in the manufacture of plastic panels, as the composite material moulds at a lower temperature than traditional plastic. The material has long been popular for fencing, cladding and other outdoor appliances, while wood polymers are also often used in children’s and dog toys. The furniture market has been slow to adopt the material, however. One of the few existing applications of the material in the industry is owed to the American manufacturer Emeco, which launched its wood polypropylene Broom collection of chairs and barstools in 2012. The Broom collection was designed by Philippe Starck using wood fibres and, like Odger, proved difficult to develop: Emeco eventually settled for a mixture of 75 per cent waste polypropylene, 15 per cent wood and 10 per cent glass fibre. “Philippe Starck and I have always agreed that it is not about recycling, but about restructuring production,” says Gregg Buchbinder, Emeco’s CEO. Like Ikea, Emeco ran extensive tests on the material before implementing Starck’s design. Using the same sort of pre-production FEA, Emeco’s developer and quality controller Magnus Breitling analysed the thickness of wood polypropylene suitable for the chair’s body and how much force would be required to break or permanently deform the material.
While the initial brief from Ikea had centred around material, FUWL argued that it needed to be broadened – the brief did not specify, for instance, that the chair should be stackable. It is this proximity of engineering and design that is distinctive in the case of Odger. “We immediately wanted to push for a sort of click-assembly, introducing a way to transport the chair in an economic and sound way,” says Löfgren and considerations such as these invited further interplay between the different parties involved in the design process. The first chair that FUWL sketched for Odger was based on a four-part flatpack system that would allow consumers to easily assemble the chair without screws or tools. “We wanted to come up with something new and decided to limit ourselves to an assembly without any need for Ikea’s traditional Allen key,” says Löfgren. A couple of months into the design process, the studio was nowhere near a finished digital file, but it nonetheless took its early ideas to Odger’s Italian supplier – mostly hand-drawn sketches of different assembly solutions including seats, legs and fixtures. “They asked us three times where the ‘proper’ drawings were. We were still coming up with ideas and wanted a workshop really,” says Löfgren.
Pishiev, meanwhile, remembers Löfgren arriving in Italy with a prototype to explain the chair’s locking mechanism. “The assembly is built on a kind of eccentric mechanism, derived from a type of spring-form cake tin that John brought with him to Italy,” says Pishiev. It would take several years, however, before this early version would be developed into a final construction. “We had to test, investigate and evaluate continuously,” says Löfgren. “We made vast numbers of design prototypes in our studio in Stockholm, to discover what would work over time.” A couple of years into the project, half the development team remained opposed to using an interlocking construction. “I remember travelling to Italy, still facing a route of traditional tools and screws as a backup,” says Löfgren. The largest resistance came from the supplier, which was cautious about approving the new assembly. “They weren’t sure that the precision of the two parts would be good enough to make the fit perfect, after the material had been heated in the mould and then cooled down,” says Pishiev. Wood-polypropylene is a material that flexes under different temperatures, and the engineers were afraid of deformation. As soon as the chair is removed from the mould, the material starts to move. These are tiny measures, hardly visible, but considerable in the case of achieving an intuitive assembly. The deformation meant that the team had to rethink the measurements of the interlocking sections to increase the safety margin in relation to the tempered behaviour of the material. “We needed to be aligned to make sure that we created something for the material, to fit its properties,” says Pishiev. “I believe the result was different to other chairs on the market due to the rearrangement of the process.”
The German sociologist and philosopher Ulrich Beck spent his career evaluating the relation between experts and non-experts, arguing that “the scientific concern with risk of industrial development in fact relies on social expectation and value judgment, just as the social discussion and perception of risk depends on scientific argument.” Beck claimed that any risk analysis based solely on scientific evidence was empty, while social judgment devoid of scientific research was blind. The core of Beck’s critique was to expose the gaps between scientific and social rationality, with “the two sides talking past each other”. It is in this same realm of uncertainty that the current alignment between quality controllers and designers exists, with Odger standing as an example of Beck’s theory that industrial development is essentially reliant on social values combined with scientific insight. “We spent more resources than what you would spend on an average chair – and by that, I mean money – to prove that we were doing the right thing,” says Pishiev. “We did a lot of high-class engineering, which is something which we do not use for any everyday object.” As our world becomes increasingly complex, a highly engineered everyday chair has the potential to become what Beck would have identified as a socially driven scientific concept. It remains to be seen whether Odger manages to spark the same passion in its audience as it did in its creators, but it does present a compelling argument for corporations such as Ikea and design studios such as FUWL to push their process stories into the public realm. It is only when the public can compare the craft behind one plastic chair over another that real material change can be made.