An automated warehouse - but not as you know it

24 November 2017

Most of us would recognise Ocado as the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer – shipping more than 260,000 orders every week to customers around the UK. However, as Suzanne Gill recently found out, there is far more to the company than one might, at first, think.

Ocado has a history of innovation borne out of solving the many challenges and complexities of executing online grocery at scale – efficiently and profitably. The unique requirements of online grocery retail, as compared with other forms of online retail, meant that Ocado had to create its own solutions in-house.

While its current proprietary logistics systems are very effective for processing and shipping orders, Ocado has much bigger ambitions. In addition to using its engineering knowledge to design and build its own automated warehouses, the company is now offering its technology to other retailers looking for a more efficient and scalable e-commerce, fulfilment and logistics platform.

This was the driver behind the creation of a truly disruptive automated storage and retrieval system which utilises many state-of-the-art technologies. Traditional warehouse automation solutions are not scalable and need to be designed and built in one go, which requires huge upfront investment and offers little scope to increase capacity beyond those allowed for by the original design.

The Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) hive is a very different solution. Instead of the miles of conveyors, cranes and other machines that you would find in its previous warehouses, the new solution employs swarm robotics.

Imagine a huge chess board on which robots roam, moving along the rows and columns. Under each chess square is a stack of storage crates containing groceries. A robot can stop on a square, lower a grab, pick up the crate from the top of the stack and bring it up into the body of the robot. It can then move to another square to deposit the crate or take it to special machines positioned around the edge of the grid. These machines perform specialised functions, for example a pick station that allows a human personal shopper (or another type of robot) to pick items from a crate into a customer order or a decant station where incoming goods from suppliers are deposited into crates and then placed into the grid.

Robot collaboration
The robots collaborate with swarm like behaviours, allowing a typical 50 item Ocado order to be picked and packed in a matter of minutes, compared with a two or three hour conveyor journey taken by traditional systems.

The scalability comes from the fact that it is possible to build the whole grid (which is made from extruded steel and aluminium) but then opt to populate just part of it with crates and robots. Then, as throughput requirements grow, more crates and robots can be added (which are the most costly ingredient).

The OSP hive also offers reliability benefits. With traditional conveyor-based models whole sections of the warehouse may need to be stopped in order to undertake repairs or maintenance. However within the hive, if any one robot has a problem or needs servicing then any of its colleagues can take over from it. The fact that the robots are identical also means that there is only one type of machine to design, manufacture, maintain and support, which can lead to significant economies of scale.

The OSP grid is controlled wirelessly using a proprietary communications solution, developed specifically for the task by Ocado in partnership with Cambridge Consultants. Based on the 4G standard, it enables the very precise communication required to control each robot, and also to scale to thousands of robots in a dense configuration.

The OSP solution also makes extensive use of artificial intelligence (AI) to help continuously optimise the movement and scheduling of the robots and also to optimise the underlying storage grid.

The new Ocado warehouse in Andover is the first site to utilise this new OSP technology. The site houses two separate grids – one for ambient and one for chilled products – with around 1,000 mobile robots working on the site.

These innovative new warehouses are designed to be even more automated and efficient to operate than the previous generations. This extends to all aspects of operation, including maintenance. Once again, Ocado is working on an innovative solution here, along with a Horizon 2020 consortium. It is developing an ‘Inspector Gadget’ style of robot-assistant, called SecondHands, to work alongside human technicians and learn from them. This aim is to provide them with help and support to maintain the automation within the warehouse, and the robot will respond to verbal and visual commands. With an extendable torso, it can not only fit into low height spaces, but can also reach higher to help maintain hard to reach items. Essentially, the robot is designed to operate in a world built for people but it doesn’t have to be constrained by the biological limitations of people. It is hoped that this robot assistant will be available for demonstration early next year.

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