IKEA, the Swedish largest furniture retailer and manufacturer, known for its continuous product improvement and innovation is well positioned to take advantage of advancements in additive manufacturing technology.
Additive manufacturing(AM), or 3D printing, unlike the traditional subtractive method, promises flexibility in sophisticated designs that requires less material to produce. Since its inception in 1980s, AM has been slowly gaining traction owing to reducing cost, new processes, and greater research that drove the growth of the AM market. 
Prototyping has always been one of the key uses of 3D printing which accounted for 36% of application in 2014. IKEA works with various designers to bring both product improvements and new products to its stores and shoppers. 3D printing allows fast prototyping and designers can have many more iterations of a design in a much shorter time frame. The flexibility in new product design would also enable IKEA’s designers to create more interesting and complex parts or finished products.
Another key advantage of 3D printing is that it allows reduction of material wastage. The conventional manufacturing process is subtractive where materials are gradually removed from the bulk to achieve desired feature.  This is a beneficial feature to large scale manufacturers like IKEA. In its most recent earning’s update, IKEA reported a drop in its underlying profit due to the rise of wood and metal prices.  This highlights the importance of managing material cost, therefore the promise of potential fast production with minimal waste by AM is certainly attractive to IKEA.
Over time as the manufacturing technologies develops further, the initial constrains of 3D printing has been greatly reduced. IKEA’s own journey with 3D printing illustrated how the application spectrum of 3D printing has been gradually expanding.
IKEA initially dabbled with 3D printing as an extension to its creative design and conceptual offerings. In 2016, IKEA collaborated with Anterwerp-based fashion designer, Walter Van Beirendonck to produce GLÖDANDE collection which was inspired by Van Beirendonck’s Children’s book. Wondermooi, the characters from the book were made available for 3D printing at Swedish stores . Later in 2016, IKEA also released a 3D knitted chair using 3D printing knitting technology as a part of its experimental design for its 2017 catalog .
In 2017, collaborating with Ireland-based Wazp – one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of 3D printed objects by volume , IKEA was the first larger furniture manufacturer to initiated 3D printing mass production project. The product was a metal-mesh, stylistic, deconstructed human hand, a decorative piece in IKEA’s OMEDELBAR collection that can be used both as a decorative jewelry holder or unique wall art. This complex design of this product would have been impossible using the traditional injection technology.
Finally IKEA saw a bigger commercial opportunity utilizing photometric and 3D-scanning in combination with 3D-printing in the 2 Billion gamers industry. Jun 2018, IKEA announced collaboration with UNYQ, a 3D printing medical wearables company, and Area Academy, an educational e-sport company to make specialized and highly personalized gaming chair. The ordinary looking hydraulic stool is expected to be fitted with two-panel mesh platform that’s been 3D-printed to achieve a perfect fit to the individual game’s gluts. These chairs are expected to become available starting in 2020. 
Looking ahead in the near term, as IKEA continues toying with 3D printing, it would be a logical next step for IKEA to find a way to introduce the ergonomic technologies used in the high-end gaming chair to other IKEA furniture, hopefully in a more economical manner as the economics always matter the most to the mass market.
In the longer term, IKEA should look beyond product development using 3D printing and consider the impact this technology has on its overall business. Additive manufacturing has the potential to transform the way products are manufactured and brought to the market. IKEA currently operates a complex global supply chain system managing raw materials that are used to build product, extend to the distribution and management of storage and inventory. As 3D printing enables the possibility of manufacturing at point of use, IKEA could potentially benefit from reduced inventory and storage space at its shops. This could even further trigger re-thinking of the design of the existing IKEA stores.
Two open-ended questions for debate are:
- Should IKEA consider building in-housing 3D printing capability instead of outsourcing to existing 3D printing companies?
- Can IKEA charge consumer more for 3D printed products with the argument that there are additional sustainability benefits in reducing material waste using a more expensive technology?
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