Automation of the warehouse

26 September, 2017

Ocado, the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer has warehouse automationimplemented a state-of-the-art warehouse automation solution which it is claimed has reduced ‘pick-time’ from 2 hours to 15 minutes.  Is warehouse automation the future for greengrocers and what could this mean for the industry?

Ocado’s warehouse in Andover, Hampshire, has 1,000 machines receiving 10 commands a second over a 4G telecoms network.  In an area the size of an Olympic swimming pool, the machines buzz frantically around their grid-like ‘Hive’, mechanically moving everything from avocados to quail eggs.  This is apparently the most densely packed mobile network on the planet.  Ocado claims that this is highly scalable and the network could theoretically handle a command chain 20 times as large.

Why is Ocado automating its process in this way?

When it comes to routine tasks such as moving, loading and replenishing, machines simply perform far more efficiently than their human counterparts. In this warehouse at any one moment the machines will be moving thousands of packages along miles and miles of conveyor belt (they get through a staggering 1.3 million items a day), constantly being fed live information as to the most efficient route to be taken. Humans are simply not capable of such a feat and limit capacity.

But this is not to say the human element is now redundant – the more front-facing picking and fulfilment of orders is still the domain of the human, and in this respect we do not yet have a competitive counterpart.  In particular the handling of unpredictably shaped objects such as fruits or fragile products is difficult to mechanize as is quality control although a sophisticated robot hand ‘grabber’ is in the process of development.

What could this mean for the industry?

Much can be learnt from Ocado’s example and substantial continuing investment in technology. Many warehouses around the UK are still laid out much like a supermarket, with aisle upon aisle of half-stocked shelves and individuals trundling up and down. Ocado has clearly bucked the trend with its frenetic robots now doing the leg work, dramatically increasing’s Ocado’s capacity and profits. 

Whilst the automation of warehouses will potentially render obsolete those unskilled roles that could instead be undertaken by the machines, on the flip side it will also help to create highly-skilled roles in software and technology development within the industry.

Ocado is keen to sell the platform on to overseas retailers and has even suggested that airfields, construction sites and factories could benefit from this solution, which is highly modular and scalable. If Ocado is successful in rolling this technology out to other retailers and industries, improved efficiencies in modes of operation will potentially stimulate multi-sector growth.