Retail

Ocado’s vast robotic warehouses are crazily cool – take a tour

By Oliver Smith 21 September 2016
Summary

Moving your groceries through space, and time.

Consumers have been clamouring over the world of online grocery shopping, AmazonFresh, automation and drones, over the last few months.

But, all this time, Ocado has been quietly building something even more impressive.

The British online supermarket started out in partnership with Waitrose back in 2000, but it has been an independent public company since 2010 and has long been a technology pioneer.

It was the first grocer to launch an iPhone app in 2009, an Android app in 2010 and an Apple Watch app in 2015.

Today Ocado is working on its next innovation, and it’s a game-changer.

Smart sheds

“Huge automated warehouses are the cornerstone of our business,” Ocado’s chief technology officer Paul Clarke told The Memo.

Today Ocado has around 20 high tech warehouses, known as ‘sheds’ among those in the industry, of different sizes and scales across Britain. Combined they let the company ship to 72% of Britain’s households.

Its two most advanced sheds, one in Andover and another being built in Erith, are among the most automated warehouses anywhere on the planet.

Space… and time

Controlled by the densest mobile network in the world – a bit like an air traffic control system for the robotic production line – over 1,000 robots simultaneously pick boxes of groceries and household items to be packed into bags by the very few humans that work there.

“They’re picking and packing things in the most efficient way, which is actually four dimensional, because time comes into play.”

Indeed Ocado’s system is optimised not just to collect the fruit, veg, meat and milk that is ordered right now, it actually predicts what kinds of orders might be coming next and moves those goods into the most efficient locations.

One day, Clarke says, robots might run the entire process, but for now humans still play a crucial role.

“We have a long-term robotic research programme underway working on grocery picking, which is actually incredibly difficult because the way you pick up a punnet of strawberries is so different to how you pick up a bunch of bananas, let alone a six pack of beer.”

It’s not like automating a repetitive task, like making a car, because every banana is different.

Sheds as a service

After Ocado finishes construction of its Erith warehouse in 2017 (the largest, most automated, modular warehouse in the world) Clarke says Ocado now wants to spread them around the world.

“We’re about to get into the business of building our own hardware, and become a platform business,” he says.

Inventing this incredible tech was only the start. Ocado plans to start selling it to other grocers around the world, a service known as Ocado Smart Platform, which will see businesses rent Ocado’s services for their own warehouses.

In return Ocado will promise to deliver an automated service that can let retailers jump-start their online stores.

“Robotics, vision systems, data science, all working in the cloud, so that we can give retailers around the world a shortcut for getting online and to compete.”

And this new business is bigger than just warehouse tech, Clarke says Ocado will provide all the tech even down to the delivery vans – and yes, they’re “doing more than keeping our eye” on driverless deliveries for the future.

Ocado doesn’t just want to be the most innovative high-end grocer in the world, it’s planning to empower a world of high-tech grocers with its technology.

Take a look at Ocado’s next-generation automated warehouse: