IFOY FINALIST FOCUS: IKEA Project Flat Pack Picking by SSI Schäfer

Next up in our series examining each of the IFOY Award nominated finalists ahead of the winners announcement on 30th June at BMW World, we look at the first of two solutions in the Integrated Warehouse Solution category –  IKEA Project Flat Pack Picking by SSI Schäfer.

IFOY category: Integrated Warehouse Solution

Flat pack picking lets SSI Schäfer offer a truly unique, automated and turnkey system solution from a single source, providing safe, efficient and volume-optimised palletising of heavy and bulky items typical for the furniture sector. The picking module with gantry robots facilitates the efficient handling of an especially heterogeneous range of items, reduces the burden of non-ergonomic tasks on employees and stands out with its high degree of scalability.

Customer: Inter IKEA Group

Realisation Phase:
From: 2019-08-08
To: 2021-04-19


The multinational furniture company IKEA has successfully implemented a fully automated order picking system for handling bulky and heavy items at its customer order distribution centre in Dortmund, Germany, together with its long-term intralogistics partner SSI Schäfer , as part of its efforts to create a more ergonomic and healthier working environment for its employees. The heart of the system is the flat pack picking solution with an intelligent gantry robot picking system. The turnkey, scalable as well as high performance system is flexible in its handling, suitable for a variety of heavy, bulky items and automatically generates optimal pack patterns for the order pallets. Modern robotics applications reduce the workload of the workforce in handling goods of this kind.

Who hasn’t heard of them, those classic products MALM, IVAR or PAX? IKEA opened its first furniture store in Germany way back in 1974. Since then, the Swedish furniture chain has been delighting customers with a wide assortment of products in Scandinavian design. This ongoing successful trajectory has continued even during the pandemic: For the 2020 fiscal year, IKEA Germany reported sales revenue of €5.325 billion in store-based retail. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the home furnishings group generated growth of 0.9%. In the e-commerce segment, sales revenue increased by 74.3% to €861 million. The online share almost doubled as compared to the previous year and is now reported at 16.2%. The growing trend in favour of online furniture purchases is compensating for the downturn in furniture stores caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Providing a consistent response to economic and social challenges
While IKEA is the undisputed number one in furniture retailing in Germany, the industry is still engaged in an intense price war. This makes it important to continuously adapt cost structures and processes, including logistics, to the dynamic market situation to ensure that IKEA can offer its customers an appealing, competitive range of goods. IKEA is handling this challenge with great success: “Steadily increasing efficiency while at the same time increasing throughput is a constant incentive for us,” says Julien Weiß, Intralogistics Development, Inter IKEA Group. “With this in mind, and primarily in order to reduce the manual workload of our employees, IKEA is increasingly investing in the automation of its intralogistics processes.” This is how the furniture group is responding to the persistent cost pressure while also focusing on the health of its staff. Conventional manual picking of heavy and bulky parts, such as chests of drawers or cabinets, can put a strain on the musculoskeletal system. Plus, hiring the right warehouse staff for positions that involve physical labour is tough.

Concept study as the initial spark for the pilot project
IKEA Intralogistics acts, for all intents and purposes, as an in-house consultant and also ensures continuous improvement of the processes at its customer order distribution centre in Dortmund. In 2017, management there began to consider the deployment of robots in the area of order picking in collaboration with SSI Schaefer, a project partner they had trusted for many years. This approach was part of a concept study, also developed jointly, to optimise logistics in the handling of customer order business. “Both the heterogeneous range of articles and the large proportion of heavy and bulky items were particularly challenging here,” says Tim Langenbach, Director Business Development Retail & Wholesale, SSI Schäfer . “As a full-range supplier in the field of intralogistics, we were able to work in close coordination to identify a suitable solution to this problem.” As part of a test installation and subsequent simulation, the flat pack picking system, which is being used for the first time in Dortmund, was determined to be the ideal solution after a “proof of concept.” The predefined customer requirements were met with an integrated logistics solution from a single source, an intelligent software concept and modern robotics applications: As a result, IKEA enjoys efficient and more ergonomic processes, handling flexibility as well as scalability.

Steady replenishment process and intelligent palletising
“Our original intention was to embrace this exciting concept and test the system together,” says Julien Weiß. “We provided the location and the items here in Dortmund, and SSI Schäfer installed the solution, facilitating a reliable ‘proof-of-functionality’.” The results were impressive across the board, and the partner contract to implement the real system was signed at the end of 2019. The system went live in April 2021, and the flexibly scalable flat pack picking module comprising hardware and software, which SSI SCHÄFER supplies as a complete system from a single source, was integrated into the customer order distribution centre’s existing hall, almost ten metres in height. Since it was started up, the incoming pallets are first checked for contours and weight. Then, energy-efficient SSI Exyz storage-retrieval machines perform the storage in the pallet warehouse with almost 900 storage locations. Along the hydraulic buffer aisle, four ro-ber FP150 series gantry robots, which access both statically provided A-items and dynamically provided B- and C-items within their action area, pick pallets. The gantry robots are equipped with multifunctional grippers that automatically adapt to the dimensions of the items and the type of packaging by means of servo-motor-adjustable suction cups. The gantry robots and grippers were developed by ro-ber Industrieroboter GmbH, a subsidiary of SSI Schaefer. The process is supported by vision technology in combination with the WAMAS logistics software, so that each picking robot is able to quickly identify the proper position of the requested item. Goods up to 2.5m in length and weighing more than 60kg are safely picked up from the source pallet and transferred to the ready-to-use order pallet. The removal of intermediate layers is also fully automated. The stored packing pattern generator (SSI Pack Pattern Generator) ensures a safe, optimised arrangement of the items on the order pallets, which are prepared for further processing via a buffer as part of the outbound process.

Findings of the simulation confirmed in operational use
IKEA distribution centres store an average of 10,000 different items. Tests have confirmed that 1,500 of these can be picked automatically. Ten percent of these items have been identified so the area can be optimally utilised. They are primarily fast movers, such as the PAX cabinet, the body of which weighs just under 60kg. “The reduced burden on our staff is a major plus,” emphasises Julien Weiß, who has headed the project since 2019. “They no longer have to pick bulky and heavy parts; instead, this is done by the robots. This takes an enormous amount of strain off the workforce, which is highly motivated to focus on boosting other value-added processes.”

Collaborative innovation for the furniture sector
IKEA and its employees immediately benefit from the increased performance values and automated processes. “We have enjoyed a consistently positive collaboration with SSI Schäfer , also in this pilot project,” Julien Weiß concludes. “The partnership approach favoured and lived out by both companies in particular has contributed to the success.” IKEA reserves the option of rolling out the innovative system at other locations. At the same time, the system will be of interest to other players in the furniture sector that would like to offer their customers an exceptional shopping experience across different channels, also in the heavy-load segment. This is because the solution delivers streamlined and efficient logistics processes with the help of automation, while at the same time offering employees an appealing working environment. “The innovative concept and the added value that can be achieved in real terms mean that the flat pack picking solution is extremely relevant to the market,” adds Tim Langenbach. “This is why we are excited to be able to implement this scalable system, which can be adapted to a wide range of different SKUs in the future and also provided on a turnkey basis to other customers.”

CLICK HERE to watch a video.


Ikea operates Germany’s largest customer order distribution centre in Dortmund. Together with its long-standing partner SSI Schäfer, Ikea has successfully relieved its employees of heavy physical work. Heavy and large items are palletised in a volume-optimised manner with the help of the new picking module from SSI Schäfer, employees are freed from unergonomic work. At the same time, optimal packing patterns for the order pallets are automatically generated.

How does Flat Pack Picking work in use at Ikea? The introduction of this sustainable, innovative picking concept from SSI Schäfer in Germany’s largest Ikea distribution centre was preceded by a concept study and proof-of-concept starting in 2017. By means of a test installation and subsequent simulation, Ikea put SSI Schäfer’s flat-pack picking system, implemented for the first time at the Dortmund site, through its paces – and found it to be good. The go-live started in April 2021. Both the heterogeneous range of articles and the large proportion of heavy and bulky articles were a particular challenge here. It turned out that of the approximately 12,000 stock keeping units (SKUs) located in the distribution centre (DC), about 10%, i.e. 1,200, can be handled fully automatically. These are usually the so-called “fast-moving items”.

The goal of the four gantry robots used, which are supported by two small gantry robots outside the actual picking area, was to relieve the employees of heavy tasks by means of automated gantry picking. One of the four gantry robots, with its 16 suction cups that grip the packaged goods from above and the cameras at the four corners, has a theoretical (technical) picking performance of 70 to 80 picks per hour. This makes the four robots the fastest link in the entire system. Together, the four gantry robots can handle a maximum of 312 picks; in real operation, they currently handle a good 200 picks per hour. Intermediate layers on the individual packages that get in the way of the fast lifting and transporting process of the packages are reliably detected and removed.

The turnkey, scalable order-picking solution basically consists of three areas: the left-hand part of the system for the dynamic provision of the slower-moving furniture packages, the actual picking area in the middle where the four “ro-ber” gantry robots do their work and to which no human has access, unfortunately not even for testing purposes, and the right-hand part of the system for the static provision of the fast-moving items. The gantry robots are equipped with multifunctional grippers that automatically adapt to the dimensions of the articles to be picked and the type of packaging by means of servomotor-adjustable suction cups. Packages of goods up to 2.5 metres in length and weighing over 60 kilograms are safely picked up from the source pallet and transferred to the order pallet. SSI Schäfer’s Pack Pattern Generator ensures that the requested items are optimally arranged on the order pallet and can be picked up for the customer order.

IFOY Test Verdict

According to Ikea’s own information, the new system enables the company to handle about 3,000 more customer orders per week than before. This is a great advantage because customer orders tend to be smaller, but the quantity is significantly higher. In times of e-commerce, more and more customers have their Ikea purchases delivered and also set up. However, SSI Schäfer’s sophisticated flat-pack picking solution can also be adapted to a wide range of different SKUs outside the furniture industry and is therefore highly interesting for other industries as well.


Market relevance: The challenge of picking large and at the same time carton-packed packages has long been known in logistics. As a rule, teams of two order pickers or one order picker with a mechanical lifting aid, such as a balancer, must be used for this. The solution presented is very attractive for this market segment. However, an essential prerequisite for successful use is reliable and stable carton packaging to implement the gripping process with vacuum suction pads.

Customer benefit: If the aforementioned prerequisite is fulfilled, the solution offers both an ergonomic benefit through the relief of the employees and a benefit through the automatic provision of the article pallets for picking. The latter function reduces the load on the supply warehouse for order picking, as the article pallets are held in the staging area for flat pack picking according to their access frequency and are made available for access at the exact time. Together with the precisely specified stacking sequence and the automated movement of the customer order pallet through the picking system, this results in a stable and reliable build-up of the load.

Novelty: The well-known picking task of flat pack picking has never before been implemented so consistently and efficiently in an automated system. The clever design of the material flow of the article pallets combined with the flexible gripping technology for handling the carton-packed parcels account for the high degree of innovation, which has not been achieved before.

Functionality / type of implementation: The functions are very well and appropriately designed for the application at IKEA. According to the information provided by the developer SSI SCHÄFER and the user IKEA, the limitation of the achievable throughput does not result from the robots with their grippers but from the capacities for cross-distribution of the customer order pallets and the article pallets with distribution trolleys. For a general use case, there is therefore still potential to make the function more adaptable for different order compositions.

Verdict: Not all interested users will have the prerequisites of stable and flat carton packaging. However, if these are given, it is a relevant and innovative solution for efficient order picking.

market relevance Ø
customer benefit ++
novelty ++
functionality / type of implementation +
[++ very good / + good / Ø balanced / – less / – – not available]

For an overview of all the finalists, visit www.ifoy.org

CLICK HERE to find out more about Flat Pack Picking by SSI Schäfer.

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