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Apr 2, 2023 10 min read

How Ikea is using drones to improve efficiency, cut costs and transform its supply chain

Ikea is leading the way in inventory management and supply chains with autonomous drones to scan and count inventory. This article examines Ikea's use of drones for supply chain optimisation and the benefits of using drones for inventory management.

How Ikea is using drones to improve efficiency, cut costs and transform its supply chain

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Ikea's challenge with inventory management

When it comes to the use of drones in supply chain management, you might think that last-mile delivery would be the killer app. But, as empty skies reveal, flying parcel delivery robots have yet to go mainstream. To discover where industrial drones are making their mark, you need to look inside, rather than outside, the warehouse.

Drones have the potential to revolutionise supply chain management, offering a range of benefits to companies that adopt them. While last-mile delivery is one of the most commonly discussed use cases for drones, it's important to note that this application is still in its early stages and has yet to be widely adopted.

Instead, drones have found a significant role in improving inventory management within warehouses. By using drones to scan and count inventory during non-operational hours, companies can gain accurate and up-to-date information about their stock levels. This has several benefits, including improving the accuracy of product availability, reducing out-of-stock situations, lowering operational costs, enhancing the wellbeing of workers, and allowing companies to become more agile and responsive to customer demand.

One company that’s gone big on drones within the warehouse is Ikea…

Ikea's use of drones for inventory management

Ikea is one of the world's largest furniture retailers, with over 400 stores in 52 countries. The company is renowned for its low-cost, flat-pack products that customers assemble themselves. However, managing its massive inventory of millions of items across its warehouses and stores is a complex challenge.

To address this issue, Ikea has turned to drones. The company has partnered with Verity, a drone-making company founded by one of the creators of Amazon Robotics, to deploy autonomous drones that can scan and count inventory in its warehouses during non-operational hours.

The drones take off from charging stations and fly around the warehouse, capturing images, videos, and 3D depth scans of the pallets and bins containing Ikea's products. The drones then return to their stations and download the data, which is processed by Verity's software to provide accurate and up-to-date inventory information.

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Big Tech Little Tech episode #22

Benefits of Using Drones for Inventory Management

Using drones for inventory management has several benefits for Ikea:

  • First, it improves the accuracy of product availability, making it easier for customers to find what they are looking for and reducing out-of-stock situations.
  • Second, it lowers operational costs by reducing the need for manual counting and human errors. Drones can check stock levels in a warehouse in less than half the time compared to human effort.
  • Third, it enhances the wellbeing of Ikea's co-workers, who can focus on more value-added tasks instead of climbing ladders and counting items by hand.
  • Finally, it allows Ikea to become more agile and responsive to customer demand and market changes.

Ikea started using drones in 2020 in its store in Switzerland and has since expanded the technology to 16 locations across Europe, including Belgium, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. The company plans to roll out drones to more stores in the future, as well as explore other advanced tools such as robots for picking up goods.

There are different ways drones can be used for logistics, operations, and distribution.

  • They can be leveraged for transportation or delivery of orders to customers. This is especially true for last-mile deliveries in urban areas with heavy traffic congestion. Though it should be noted, the FAA in the U.S. has yet to authorise any large scale operations as of April 2020.
  • Deliveries of medicines and relief packs to remote and rural areas are already being tested.
  • Remotely-operated drones can be used in inspecting infrastructure after a disaster for risk assessment purposes.
  • Security surveillance of large areas for logistics such as warehouses and factories
  • Maintenance assessment of infrastructure integrity of yards, terminals, and warehouse roofs
  • Scanning of pallets inside distribution centers, allowing the operations team to view inventory stored on the premises as well as searching for misplaced goods in difficult-to-reach spaces
  • Collection of video and images during inventory audits

Zero-error warehouse

Pilot studies have shown that using self-flying inventory drones, similar to those used by Ikea, can save up to 50% of data collection time. And once the technology is fully operational, this advantage could increase to 80%, according to a trial conducted by Danish transport and logistics firm DSV. These warehouse drones, developed by Verity, a company headquartered in Zurich, are a key enabler of the ‘zero-error’ warehouse.

Despite the increased use of warehouse management systems, it is still necessary to verify that what is displayed on-screen matches what is physically present on the shelves. For large facilities, which can be the size of multiple football pitches, inventory counting can take days if done manually. Recognising that there are better ways to examine pallets of goods piled high in warehouses, Verity is one of several developers exploring the use of drones.

Moreover, besides flying around the warehouse to take pictures of the stock on the shelves, autonomous drones can record other data such as temperature and humidity. This additional information can be integrated into alerts that warn when goods may be in danger of deteriorating, thus reducing waste.

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L’Oréal:
In it’s 2018 annual report, L’Oréal reported it was “automating and optimising the flows in its distribution centres, located in more than 50 countries”. As a result, L’Oréal was able to deliver one order every two seconds and supply more than 500,000 delivery points all over the planet.

One of the initiatives from L’Oréal was the piloting of an autonomous drone to compile inventories in its distribution centres. In June 2022, L’Oréal announced a 3 year partnership with drone manufacturer Delta Drone for inventory management at the L’Oréal distribution centre in Northern France.

It’s not just Ikea who are using drones for inventory management

Cosmetics giant L’Oréal announced a three year partnership with Delta Drone in 2022. The autonomous drone system is used to conduct an annual inventory at the cosmetics company's distribution centre in Northern France.

Delta Drone deploys its COUNTBOT system at the L’Oréal warehouse facility, which consists of a robot, 14 high-resolution cameras, a mast that can reach 10 m (32 ft.), and a drone. The company has developed and tested the system in partnership with logistics group GEODIS, and guarantees the protection of goods and people.

According to Delta Drone's website, "COUNTBOT combines ground robot and aerial drone technologies to carry out fast, accurate, and automated inventories." The system is a major ally in warehouse quality management.

The use of drones in supply chain management reduces the potential for shipping disruptions by improving information accuracy. Additionally, L’Oréal's warehouse team states that the automated solution could eventually eliminate the need to close the facility for an annual inventory check, a task that currently takes three days. Using drones instead of people also improves safety for staff, considering that pallets can be stacked many shelves high and warehouse ceilings can reach over 50 ft (15 m) to accommodate goods, giving an idea of scale.

US firm Ware, another developer of inventory monitoring systems, points out that filling roles can be difficult for warehouse operators. Automation and speed of operation are key factors in the success of drones in supply chain management. Ware's system uses drones provided by Skydio and follows a 3-step process.  Barrett Distribution Centers, one of Ware’s customers, reports that drones can analyze 350 locations per hour compared with 20 locations per hour for manual inspection. IAG Cargo – an aviation freight specialist – found that it was spending 6,500 hours per year gathering location data by hand and reading barcodes of items inside its warehouse facilities. So, it’s no surprise to learn that the firm has also investigated aerial robotics solutions to streamline operations.

In this case, the air freight provider carried out trials using Flytbase’s drone platform, which allows developers to create and deploy fully automated and cloud-connected aerial robotics at scale. Unlike systems that operate outside, drones that fly inside have fewer regulatory restrictions, which has helped to accelerate development. Onetrack is another company that’s leveraged this opportunity.

Other advanced technologies used by Ikea

In addition to using drones for inventory management, Ikea is also exploring other advanced technologies to optimise its supply chain. For instance, it is testing robots for picking up goods, which can further reduce manual labor and improve efficiency. This is particularly important given the surge in online shopping during the pandemic, which has put pressure on retailers to streamline their operations and meet customer demands.

Ikea's focus on technology is also in line with its sustainability goals. By using drones and robots, the company can reduce its carbon footprint and minimise waste. Moreover, it can offer customers more eco-friendly products and services, such as energy-efficient lighting and sustainable materials.

Overall, Ikea's use of drones is a testament to the power of innovation and collaboration in driving business success. As the retail industry continues to evolve, companies like Ikea will need to embrace new technologies and adapt to changing consumer needs to stay ahead of the competition.


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Further Reading

Drone use in supply chain about to take off
Chris Gee, a Future Aviation Technologist with Catapult, on why drones will change the face of supply chains - in warehouses, inventory and last mile
Drones in supply chain management – the inside story
Aerial robotics has transformed warehouse inventory monitoring, a growth area for drones in supply chain management.
The Future of Drones in Logistics and Supply Chain Management
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones are being increasingly used by the freight and logistics industry, assisting during various points in the supply chain, including for warehouse operations, shuttling goods between distribution centers and last-mile delivery.
IKEA deploys MiR robots to help clean up warehouse - Mobile Robot Guide
This use case outlines the benefits of deploying an AMR for autonomous waste collection.

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