IKEA’s new Joliet distribution center has the capacity to unload the equivalent of 22 ocean liners an hour, a proficiency that was the result of a lot of brainstorming, Patrick Wedig told a gathering Wednesday at opening ceremonies for the facility.
Wedig, logistics development manager for IKEA, recounted “radical ideas and technology beyond anything IKEA had done before” as designs and concepts were drawn up for Joliet.
“Then came the hard part,” Wedig said, “taking the ideas from the whiteboards and power points and turning them into this building you see today.”
Wedig and others Wednesday declared the effort a success, pointing to a fully automated storage silo, cranes lifting containers as heavy as 154 pounds with vacuum suction, and a warehouse that has done away with traditional wooden pallets.
“We have eliminated the need to continue purchasing pallets and recycling them,” Wedig said. The warehouse uses flat pallet boards – not the standard 6-inch high pallet – that stay in the facility.
Wedig said a pallet-less warehouse would have pleased the late founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, who was a conservation advocate.
The unique features of the distribution center in the Laraway Crossings Business Park include the largest solar array in Illinois. A 268,920-square-foot section of the roof holds 9,036 solar panels.
Reminders of IKEA’s Swedish roots and messages reflecting corporate culture are scattered throughout the
1.25 million-square-foot facility.
“Create a better everyday life for the many,” according to one large poster in the warehouse, reflecting a Kamprad tenet that lives could be improved through affordable household furnishings.
A sign in the entryway to the warehouse carries the message, “Together we can make the most of what we have.” It tells a story of how Swedish farmers unearthed large rocks that otherwise impeded plowing and used them to protect their fields.
“We feel we have to establish the values first before starting the business,” said Eric Poli, distribution center manager for the Joliet operation. “You have to have the mindset of how can we do everything we can to help create a better everyday life.”
A photo display shows merchandise the facility ships to IKEA stores – goods otherwise enclosed in cardboard containers while passing through Joliet.
“It’s more than just a brown box,” Poli said. “We try to explain to our co-workers what’s in the brown boxes.”
The Joliet facility employs 75 workers now, but the staff will expand to 225 next year as IKEA completes a transition from a temporary warehouse in Minooka that has been used for Midwest distribution.
IKEA actually bought the 72-acre Joliet site in 2007, but the project was delayed by the recession. Construction started in April 2016.
Passers-by noted the 115-foot-high tower of blue storage racks that was visible for months before being put under a roof. The tower makes up the fully automated silo that stores most of the merchandise going in and out.
IKEA warehouse workers operate outside the silo at interface stations as automated cranes pick cartons off the racks and bring them to storage transfer vehicles that carry them to 24 points, where they are transferred to trucks.
“Each STV has its own little brain,” warehouse manager Tara Jorstad said as she led a tour and explained the cars moving along two loops around the silo. “The system tells them were to go, what to get and where to unload.”
One station worker demonstrated how a 150-pound box could be lifted and moved without being touched by human hands through the use of a lift-assist device with a vacuum-powered suction that raises the container.
In other warehouses, several workers might lift the container, safety and security manager Anthony Fitzpatrick said.
“This allows a person with one hand – actually just a couple of fingers – to lift 150 pounds,” Fitzpatrick said. “It helps us reduce all those injuries we’d have in a manual pick process.”
The Joliet facility is one of nine IKEA distribution centers in the U.S. distributing merchandise to 48 stores. The Joliet facility will distribute goods to 17 stores as far away as Texas and Colorado.