“This has to be a render,” is my first thought as I watch these robots moving quickly over a seemingly infinite grid of crates. I am wrong. “Because the robots are brand new, it looks like a render but in fact it’s 100% real,” answers Alex Voica, the head of technology PR and communications at Ocado, a British online-only supermarket that delivers orders to customers straight from its warehouses.
Ocado sells everything you can find in a brick-and-mortar supermarket–from meat, dairy, and produce to its own brand of home products, third-party goods, and even flowers, toys, and magazines. When it comes to online delivery, speed and efficiency are paramount, which is why the company has been working on automation since it was founded in 2000. While other companies rely on human workers to find and buy all of the items on an online customer’s shopping list, Ocado is using a new kind of robot–or, more specifically, a swarm of them.
At an Ocado warehouse in the English town of Andover, a swarm of 1,000 robots races over a grid the size of a soccer field, filling orders and replacing stock. The new system, which went live earlier this year, can fulfill a 50-item order in under five minutes–something that used to take about two hours at human-only facilities. It’s been so successful that Ocado is now building a new warehouse that’s three times larger in Erith, southeast of London. When it comes online, it will be the world’s largest automated warehouse for grocery shopping.
Ocado’s robots, co-developed with the U.K. company Tharsus, travel over the warehouse grid at speeds of 13 feet per second. The grid holds containers organized in multiple layers, holding all the products that Ocado sells on its website–more than 50,000 in all. When its servers receive an order, the software commands the robot swarm to collect all the items. The robots closest to each product races toward them, lowering a hook to grab and pull the crate that contains the item. Then, they head toward a static location where, under the grid, a human worker awaits. The first robot to arrive lowers the container and, after the human grabs the item, moves on to fulfill other orders. Other robots repeat the process until the worker completes the entire order.
The system works in the same way to replenish stock in the grid: A robot will bring an empty container to a human worker who fills it with stock at a static location. Then it will race back to the adequate square to drop the container, making it available for other robots to fulfill orders.
According to CTO Paul Clarke, the idea came “from the container industry in terms of how shipping containers are stacked one on top of one another and then moved around by cranes acting above the stacks.” Clarke tells me over email that “the intellectual property surrounding that original idea has long been in the public domain, we simply applied the idea to storage systems for grocery and added our own innovation.”
Could Ocado one day license its tech to other e-commerce companies working with the same challenges? The company says it’s already doing that with Morrisons, one of the big four chain of supermarkets in the UK. After all, these types of automated systems are fundamental to the efficiency of online distributors and can be the difference between success and failure. Amazon understood this and bought the automated warehouse robot company Kiva for $720 million in 2012, deploying 45,000 Kiva robots in its fulfillment centers. Clarke says that to deploy this grid system to other retailers, the company would need to create “a dedicated configuration for each retailer to ensure a customized experience and complete separation of data and execution capacity.” It sounds like it would be a beast to adapt to other companies, so “Ocado is offering this technology to other grocery retailers in the form of a Platform as a Service rather than selling the technology outright,” Voica told me via email.
I asked Clarke if he felt like robots were replacing humans at his company. He argued the contrary. The company, he says, is continuously expanding, and it is a “net employer of 13,000 people, none of whom [including himself] would have a job if it hadn’t been for the automation and robotics we’ve developed here.” He also claims that its “workforce has doubled in the last five years,” and just added 200 new jobs at the grid facility in Andover.
Since Ocado’s entire business model was built from the ground up around online ordering and automation, it never had a retail operation or depended solely on humans to do business. Its previous facilities had a more traditional and slower system that used conveyors. The grid system is faster, but still employs humans at both ends of the fulfillment and delivery chain. So perhaps we should chalk this one to the “robotic technology can actually generate human jobs” camp. At least for the time being.
This article has been updated with two corrections. First, The robots were developed by Tharsus and Ocado. Second, Ocado actually offers this platform to retailers.