The often-frustrating task of assembling build-it-yourself furniture, such as bookshelves, may soon become much easier. A team of researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich, Switzerland) have been working with Ikea International (Helsingborg, Sweden) to develop smart furniture with built-in error-proofing technology. They have fitted a furniture kit with cheap microprocessors that monitor the assembly process.

The scientists discovered that there are 44 different ways to assemble an Ikea wardrobe without paper instructions. Only eight of these result in correct and safe construction. Other paths lead to something that looks stable, but is not, or come to a dead end.

Movement and pressure sensors were attached to the six components that make up the sides of a wardrobe. The sensors feed data into a battery-powered microchip built into one of the pieces. Instructions, tips and warnings appear on a separate computer screen, which is connected over a wireless link.

Eventually, the researchers hope to embed LED displays into the parts. A steady light might indicate which piece to fit next, or flashing lights could warn assemblers that they are trying to force-fit the wrong part.

The Swiss scientists have also fitted screwdrivers with sensors so the system knows if screws are being overtightened. The sensors, microchips and LEDs are light-activated so there is no power drain until the pieces are removed from a box.