Ocado Group

Ocado showcases 3D printing innovation

Having delivered its first orders 20 years ago, Ocado is now reinventing the business process for online grocery delivery

Ocado has unveiled a new approach to building the robots in its fulfilment centres, which it hopes will dramatically improve efficiency and reduce operating costs. The company has developed a 600 Series bot, which it said can be built cheaper and is lighter than the current 500 Series bot.

Speaking at the Ocado Re:Imagined virtual event, Tim Steiner, CEO and founder of Ocado, discussed how the Covid-19 pandemic had led to a big swing in the uptake of online grocery deliveries. He said the challenging trade-off in groceries is about being able to offer the products customers really want that offer value for money, but with a variety of lead times that match their lifestyles.

According to Steiner, the 600 Series grocery fulfilment bot “changes everything”. Ocado designed the 600 Series using topology optimisation, similar to the technique used in the aerospace sector to make aircraft parts strong but light. It then used additive manufacturing, in partnership with HP, to make 3D prints of the parts required to build the 600 Series.

The bots run on a grid at Ocado facilities and Steiner said the “600 Series opens up the opportunity to rethink our grid”. Since it is lighter, he said Ocado now has the opportunity to build ultra-light grids that can be built in parallel in weeks, rather than months. This also means the grids can be installed in a wide range of existing buildings, he added, which reduces the costs associated with building a new facility. It also means Ocado will be able to develop micro-fulfilment centres.

“Because the 600 Series bots are highly energy-efficient and require a lot less power to achieve the same throughput from the same footprint, new sites will require less chill equipment, lowering energy consumption levels and overall construction costs. The dramatic reduction in material used for our lighter grids not only makes site design easier, it also allows us to install our new technology into simpler buildings, significantly reducing the timelines and costs associated with the construction of purpose-built facilities,” the company said.

Half the parts for the 600 Series are printed using an HP 3D printer. The company acknowledged that it has not yet decided where to locate these printers. They could be hosted at a central manufacturing facility or on-site at a warehouse, enabling parts to be printed on-demand as and when needed to repair the 600 Series. 

On the software side, Ocado also unveiled a new approach to distribution, called Ocado Orbit, which it said is the world’s first virtual distribution centre. Ocado’s distribution model relies on directly fulfilling customer orders through its customer fulfilment centres (CFCs).

While Ocado’s smart platform avoids the need to build out a network of regional distribution centres to deliver products to the fulfilment centre, its CFCs need to be a certain minimum size to achieve the necessary economics for suppliers. According to Ocado, Orbit addresses this challenge by creating a system where smaller warehouses share a “virtual distribution centre”.

Each acts as a primary supply hub for a fraction of the stock. This means they can take delivery of a large order from a single supplier, but all have access to the combined range, offering customers a wide range of choice. Using machine learning, Orbit extends the total inventory held across the network. Products are moved from warehouse to warehouse to ensure groceries that customers want are at the warehouse closest to their home.

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