technaut (technaut) wrote,
technaut
technaut

Lego meets IKEA.

As a person steeped in the culture of the IT industry, I tend to think of design space as being characterized by reusable modules and carefully-chosen interfaces. This tendency persists even when I am dealing with the real world. As a result, on a recent trip to Ikea, I was struck by what IKEA and Lego could teach each other when it comes to design and assembly. The thing these stores have in common of course, is modularity, interfaces and design.

Lego is well known for the huge variety of modular toy components they make, and the fact that they all adhere to three or four carefully thought-out interconnection interfaces. Lego's motto for many years was "It Fits", and it has infused their whole production philosophy. On the other hand, Lego does not cater to its customers and has been known to act with complete indifference even to its largest distributors. It also cannot be said that most Lego toys are particularly stylish or elegant (although there are exceptions).

Ikea, on the other hand, is a customer-oriented producer of a wide range of low-cost good looking furniture that is hand assembled by the purchaser. Having put together a fair number of Ikea pieces over the years, I've been struck by the wide variety of connection interfaces they use. It seems like every other item I've put together has a novel way of being joined.

To a large extent this is because modularity is just not a key design criterion for Ikea. Even when they explicitly make a set of modular furniture (such as some of their wall units), the various pieces are reusable only within that line, and often only with sets made within a few years of each other as the design tolerances are known to wander in their products.

This got me to thinking about a furniture store that combined these approaches. The idea would be to produce well-made, elegant looking furniture that was highly modular and configurable. There would still be different lines of furniture featuring different styles, colors and materials, but they would all be made of pieces that used the same set of standard joining interfaces.

The individual parts would also conform to a number of standard shapes, widths and lengths so that they would more easily support the interchange of parts. It should be possible to exchange the legs on a chair and a table, or to mount kitchen cupboards on a bed frame, if one wished.

Normally one would buy sets specifically designed to put together a given piece of furniture, but it should also be possible to buy individual pieces to mix and match furniture that fits a particular design goal.

Now, none of this will be particularly easy to do. Good furniture design is an art form, as is the design of good construction interfaces. On the other hand, I think the results would be a line of furniture that would have not only have a high usability (due to its customization) but a high reusability as well. After all, if the pieces can go together in multiple ways, one can update their living room just by taking everything apart and putting it together in novel ways.

The main competitor to any attempt to produce a line of furniture like this will probably be Ikea, but I think there are significant advantages that could be had over that company. To begin with, the modular furniture would support a far greater degree of customizability with respect to things like choices of materials, colors and textures. In fact, if the company adopted a just-in-time production philosophy it would be possible to have some lesser-demanded combinations of materials and colors produced automatically when an order came in.

In addition, the modularity means that the store could cater to the rarer customer, simply by providing a few special-purpose pieces. Thus, it should be possible to produce smaller versions of furniture for children or little people, or to make a kitchen or bathroom designed to deal with the needs of those who are blind or confined to a wheelchair.

As we enter the 21st century, I believe that demand will increase for ever more customizable and personalizable products, and furniture will be just one of these. Starting with modular furniture would give a company the chance to be in on the ground floor as new custom manufacturing technologies become ever more prevalent in the next couple of decades.
Tags: interfaces, modularity, on demand manufacturing
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