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Since its foundation back in 2000, online groceries deliverer Ocado has distinguished itself from competitors by having no high street presence – relying exclusively on its network of warehouses and picking centres to meet customers’ needs.
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The firm has always seen itself as an IT business with a retailer attached – according to technology director Paul Clarke, who previously oversaw a project to build a Google-based business intelligence dashboard to meet specific internal needs.
But as more people shop online, Ocado has turned to its warehousing systems as ripe for a makeover. Currently, it relies on boxes travelling around its warehouses – often over great distances – with humans filling them as they go. However, it is rapidly running out of time and space to address all its orders in the timely manner consumers expect.
“Efficiency is the aim,” explained David Sharp, head of technology 10x, Ocado's internal development programme: “We have to create more capacity because, essentially, Ocado today has to ration how customers use it.”
In the never-ending quest for efficiency, Ocado now plans to do away with its traditional human-centric picking systems in favour of automated robots moving around a compact, stacked vertical structure, which it calls a hive.
The hive comprises a honeycomb structure, with robots moving boxes around and dropping them to the bottom of the warehouse for people to fill.
“Doing this lets you have a dense and efficient warehouse,” explained Sharp. “We are building the first in Andover, in the final stages of testing. At full capacity, it can handle 65,000 orders a week – which is equivalent to £350m sales a year.”
Ocado also has plans to build a larger version at Erith, in Kent. When complete, that will be able to handle 200,000 orders a week, bringing in £1.2bn per annum at full capacity – which comes close to doubling its current sales.
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Network rethink for high speeds
The picking robots must move quickly and seamlessly across a large space without hitting one another, and they need to be able to do this at high speed to meet the demands of a busy online shop.
Ocado quickly realised it needed to rethink how these robots communicate, meaning it needed to redesign its network.
“Existing technology – such as Wi-Fi – simply wasn’t fast enough to handle 1,000 simultaneous conversations 10 times per second,” said Sharp.
To address this challenge, Ocado turned to IT consultancy Cambridge Consultants.
“Ocado had a vision to transform its business, but the blocker was inability to talk to the robots,” said Cambridge Consultants head of connected devices, Tim Ensor.
“We looked at all the possible ways we could provide that vision – lasers, enhanced Wi-Fi – but based on all the requirements we decided mobile broadband was the best solution.”
It deployed its RCOM point-to-multipoint radio communications system, a 4G LTE wireless system, in the unlicensed 5GHz Wi-Fi spectrum band. RCOM has been designed to provide real-time control and monitoring communications to a large number of machines.
'Near-miss – to human eyes'
It comprises a fixed basestation and a number of mobile machine control modules (MCMs) – in this case, the robots – with each basestation communicating with up to 1,000 MCMs every 100 milliseconds. The MCMs can move at up to 14.4kph and range over a distance of 150m.
“The test process was actually very exciting to watch, because the software is designed so that every movement is a near-miss to human eyes,” said Sharp.
In the case of the Andover facility, one base station will control every robot across an area the size of an Olympic swimming pool – over what Ocado believes is the most densely-packed mobile network in the world.
David Sharp, Ocado
For the future Erith facility, it will need more than one base station. Sharp predicted this site would probably need no more than a dozen, although theoretically, RCOM can scale up to 24 base stations operating simultaneously.
Because this was the first time such a system was deployed in unlicensed spectrum, it had to undergo extensive testing first.
“The regulations for 5GHz-testing assume that you’re doing Wi-Fi, so we had to devise a bespoke test to get Ofcom to a point where they understood what we were doing and were happy with it,” said Ensor.
The testing process also threw up more challenges in dealing with factors such as radio propagation in what are, essentially, large metal sheds, and interference from other devices on-site.
Robots as a service
Besides Ocado’s internal goals, Sharp’s remit extends beyond the warehouse doors – and he hopes to sell the system to other retailers and partners.
It has worked with a number already – including bricks-and-mortar supermarket chain Morrisons, which it took from launch to £200m within a year using its existing technology and software.
It is now combining the robotic hardware platform with a cloud-based, e-commerce, fulfilment and logistics software platform – "Ocado Smart Platform" – to sell to other retailers.
“We are offering some quite attractive terms for this, because you can start with your existing warehouse, fit a grid, choose how many boxes, stacks and robots you need, and use the Ocado Smart Platform as an out-of-the-box online retail offering, paying for as much as you need as your business grows,” he said.
Ocado has plans to grow the system. As well as employing robots to move the boxes around and deliver them to the right human, it is working on robots to deploy alongside the humans, said Sharp, to lift heavier items, such as washing powder or drinks multipacks.