IKEA Warehouses Begin Using Drones to Keep Track of Inventory

When Ingvar Kamprad was only 17 years old, he began a mail order furniture company. Making an acronym from his name, his family farm (Elmtyrad), and its neighboring town (Agunnayrd), Innvar founded IKEA which would go on to become the world’s largest furniture retailer. IKEA now has more than 440 warehouses and 80 stores around the world with an average annual revenue of $45 billion. And while IKEA has become famous for the do-it-yourself furniture kits they sell, when it comes to streamlining logistics, they understand that a do-it-yourself method is inadequate. IKEA’s logistics developer Olof Orstadius turned to the largest online retailer, Amazon, for inspiration.

For Amazon Prime members to get their next day deliveries, a lot needs to happen. In a fulfillment center, employees gather purchased items and make sure they are carefully packaged for delivery by hand. Before the items get to the fulfillment center, and then once they are ready to be parceled out, the items go through an Amazon storage and sorting warehouse. The millions of items in the storage centers need to be carefully logged. In the sorting centers, the packages need to be expertly collated so that they are sent to the correct addresses. In 2003, Raffaello D’Andrea and Mick Mountz founded Kiva systems that develop highly tuned drones and robotics that keep fulfillment and inventory centers operational. Shortly thereafter, Kiva was acquired by Amazon Robotics to manage their storage and sorting warehouses.

After successfully building a platform of artificially intelligent robotics that log, transport, and inventory packages for Amazon, Raffaello co-founded Verity Studios out of Zurich, Switzerland in 2014. Originally, Verity began as a drone light show company. But to stand out in the growing market, Verity designed drones that are safe enough to be used indoors and around people. Verity’s custom Lucie micro drone has been featured onstage with Metallica, Drake, Celine Dion, and many more. The drones safely maneuver around the performers and the audience with dazzling results. Combining the technology behind Verity and Kiva, Raffaello built small drones that IKEA is now bringing into their warehouses.

As Olof explained, manually inventorying IKEA’s stock is time consuming, expensive, and nonconducive to efficient work practices. “Imagine the time being spent, making sure that the pallets are in the right place and containing the right products. On top of that, we also need to keep track of how many products each pallet contains,” Olof said. In 2020, IKEA and Verity began a trial at the Spreitenbach, Switzerland warehouse. Verity’s autonomous warehouse drone is a lightweight low profile quadrocopter. All moving parts of the drone are encased by a frame that is covered in a soft felt-like material that protects any packages from damage in the unlikely event of a collision. Still, all of Verity’s drones are equipped with the company’s Failsafe flight software that ensures the drones safely and autonomously fly even if the drone hardware malfunctions.

Though the drones are safe to fly around people, for the trial IKEA deployed them on Sundays when all employees are off. Since the drones are entirely autonomous, they do not need any people on hand to activate them. A schedule is inputted to the drone’s docking station. At a set time, the drones automatically launch, fly through the warehouse collecting data, and return to the base to recharge when needed. Once fully charged, the drones continue to launch until the mission objectives are completed. The data collected includes visual confirmation of pallets and 3D scans that account for pallet contents. “Algorithms then extract actionable insights, Raffaello explained. “For example, one location was supposed to have a pallet, but the pallet was missing. Another location had a pallet, but it was the wrong one.”

The pilot program has been a huge success said Helge Nilsson, logistics manager at the Spreitenbach warehouse. “Counting the pallets cost us several hours every day,” he said. “Our drones do this together with scanning on a Sunday when we enjoy our day off. This allows employees and drones to alternate optimally.” IKEA is now preparing to implement the drones in other Swiss locations starting with its central warehouse in Itingen. In recognition of his Mobile Robotic Material Handling for Order Fulfillment, Raffaello was inducted into the 2020 National Inventors Hall of Fame. The drone systems that Raffaello has invented are changing the way modern logistics are handled, just like how Invar changed the way people shop for furniture nearly 80 years ago.

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