Robot swarm runs hive of online grocery activity

A warehouse in Hampshire is home to up to 1100 robots that can work simultaneously to satisfy the voracious eating habits of humans.

The 240,000 sq ft facility is situated on Walworth Business Park in Andover and is called a customer fulfilment centre (CFC) by Ocado, the online grocer targeting relentless growth through its application of automation and technology.

The Andover CFC provides consumers with a choice of 45,000 products and is set up to handle the picking of 3.5 million items to fulfil up to 65,000 orders a week.

To make this possible, Ocado has created a 4D hive  - three physical dimensions plus a complex communications network - with battery-operated robots at the summit. They manoeuvre over a grid at a top speed of 4m/s - and to within 5mm of one another - to pull crates into a cavity within them. They then move around the grid to lower crates to humans assembling orders for customers who’ve signed up to Ocado’s home delivery service. The crates are then fed back into the system and the process continues on a 24/7 basis.

Up to 21 crates form the columns of goods the robots pick from, and 4G communications are set up to facilitate 10 interactions per second to the robots. According to Paul Clarke, Ocado’s chief technology officer, the minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour operations at Andover are completely automatic.

The grid at Andover covers an area the size of several football pitches but is relatively small compared the facility being readied at Erith in South East London. Occupying a 36-acre site, the 540,000sq ft. (ca. 50,000m2) facility will be able to process 220,000 orders per week, which equates to roughly 11.4m individual items picked over the same period. To hit these targets, Ocado will enlist 3,500 robots to swarm around the grid at the new facility, which is being shared with Morrisons.

Size and capacity aside, both facilities are part of a thrust by Ocado to deliver technology solutions as well as groceries.

Andover and Erith are Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) facilities, which are defined by the company as modular, scalable software and hardware platforms that power all aspects of a grocery e-commerce business.

According to Clarke, the scalability and modularity of OSPs are providing a ‘game changing capability’ and the strategy is showing clear signs of working.

In November 2017, Ocado and French multinational retailer Groupe Casino signed an agreement to develop the OSP in France. This was followed by a deal signed in January 2018 with Canada’s Sobeys, and its most recent activity has seen ICA Group's online grocery business in Sweden sign up for OSP.

“We are increasingly becoming a multi-site international organisation in terms of not just where we may deploy the technology, but also where we’re building it,” said Clarke. “It’s the same direction of travel we’ve been on pretty much from day one, which is how to use technology and automation to enable you to do online grocery scaleably and profitably, which quite frankly most people struggle at.”

Ocado’s first CFC was built in Hatfield and started operations in 2001, followed by Dordon, Warwickshire, in 2013 and both have played a pivotal role in an evolutionary process that shows no signs of slowing down.

The company is involved in an ongoing project to introduce robots to picking stations that are normally manned by human employees and to this end a cobot is proving its worth in Andover by using its end effector to manipulate items packaged with flat surfaces.

Whilst this might work for a box of tea bags, it won’t necessarily work for a bag of oranges, and work in ongoing as part of a Horizon 2020 project to develop an end effector that can handle these complex items. As part of the same programme, the company is involved in the development of a humanoid robot that will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced vision systems to understand and support human workers.

Clarke doesn’t foresee drones becoming part of Ocado’s delivery solutions but predicts that artificial intelligence (AI) will enable companies to do ‘all the really exciting stuff with other disruptive technologies like the Cloud and Big Data, robotics and IoT.’

“In due course AI will get knocked off its perch by quantum computing, which will be another extraordinary game changer,” he said. “It will impact us in a positive way. It’s one that we’re not just keeping an eye on, we’re actively getting our toes in the water and talking with companies that are building those technologies…we definitely see ourselves as an early adopter of that technology, along with a number of different kinds of quantum technologies. Quantum computing is just one a set of different technologies that are going to be very interesting.”

Clarke added that investing in technology is vital for businesses such as grocery with a 30 per cent gross margin.

“For a £2.00 item you’ve got 60p to pay for picking, packing and delivery and the only way you’re going to do that and have a profit is to use a lot of technology and automation, and that’s what we’ve done from day one.”

Ocado has been profitable at an order level for many years, said Clarke, and the company has regularly used profits from a very successful retail business and reinvested them in building the company’s technology. By doing so, it has put itself in a unique position. Clark explained that there are many ways of doing other types of retail, but grocery is the most challenging due to different form factors, four temperature regimes, items that can’t be stacked on top of one another, and the short shelf life of certain products.

“If you can do online grocery you can do general merchandise and we can do that now, but the reverse definitely does not follow,” he said. “In true Ocado fashion we’ve taken the most difficult one first and worked out how to do that scaleably and profitably.”