The Ikea Foundation developed and tested a better home for refugee families, in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Better Shelter. The Swedish thermoformer Safeman chosen Cannon for manufacturing its innovative equipment, required to produce the plastic modular shelter.

Many of the textile or plastic shelters used in refugee camps often have a life span of as little as six months before the impact of sun, rain and wind calls for their replacement. Unfortunately, refugees can stay in camps for several years.

Collaborating for the benefit of refugees

The IKEA Foundation provided to this project funding and management support, UNHCR brought the know-how and field experience, while Better Shelter —a social enterprise —developed the prototypes and specifications for houses that are put up in modules and can be delivered in flat packs, a well-known IKEA concept that simplifies transport.

A smart, portable shelter

The houses are designed to be easily set up and taken apart and are also easy to carry.
A tubular steel structure, similar to that used for camping tents, supports modular panelling elements for the roof and the walls: these panels, made by thermoforming rectangular sheets of expanded TPO (thermoplastic polyolefin), are characterised by an excellent resistance to UVs and rain. These lightweight panels are fixed one another through simple plastic buttons and, when installed, they guarantee a certain degree of thermal insulation, a complete tightness to light, wind and rain.

Each house is fitted with a flexible type of solar power unit, which is sufficient to power one lamp, that comes with the house, and a USB port. The USB option may look odd, but it shows the high conceptual level behind the project: the refugees not only demand comfort, security and dignity, but also need a way to communicate with the rest of the world, and their mobile phones, tablets and computers plug into the same four-pin ports that we all use.

The prototypes of the shelter have been tested in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Iraq and the families who live in the shelter have had a direct say in how the product is developed, contributing with their experience to this collaborative process.

The project, started in 2008, required a number of refinements prior to the definition of the ideal shelter.

When the decision was made to use thermoformed plastic walls and roof, NORTEC-Cannon, the Cannon agency in Europe’s Northern countries, was consulted by the Swedish company Safeman for the supply of a proper industrial solution able to provide the high number of parts in a rational and fast way.
Safeman designs and manufactures products and details in materials such as plastic, textile, foil, leather and metal, and were involved since the beginning in the development of this innovative shelter.

Cannon Ergos was involved with this request and responded designing a complete production solution, while offering their laboratory facilities to supply the desired prototypes for the field tests. The suggested thermoforming solution aimed to produce a totally trim-less panel: no peripheral scrap is generated in this project, contributing to the economy and the environment friendliness of the process.

A dedicated, environment-friend solution

The plant, supplied by Cannon Ergos, includes:

  • two forming presses to shape five different types of panels served by four handling robots
  • three presses to punch the holes for the connecting buttons
  • five thermoforming moulds
  • the heating stations for the plastic sheets
  • the complete engineering of the plant
  • two prototyping moulds and all the relevant production of prototypes

When fully operative, this plant can produce panels for about 30,000 shelters/year. Cannon is glad of having contributed to this project: with the supply of a complete solution —from the technological concept to the production plant, including tooling and prototyping service —Cannon Ergos confirmed once more their mission of One-Stop-Shop supplier of complex moulding plants.
We thank IKEA Foundation ( for parts of the article and for the shelters pictures.