Last week we delved inside the surprisingly intelligent world of the Ocado warehouse. As we reported, it turns out that when you order your groceries online your shopping isn’t assembled by pushing a trolley around a supermarket - but it is instead prepared by a dizzying array of conveyor belts, lifts and robots, with only the occasional human for support.
It’s incredibly impressive - and seeing it in action, I felt as though I was catching a glimpse of the future. That was, until, Ocado told me about what it was working on next.
Forget the conveyors, forget the shelves - and instead imagine a grid system. Densely packed under each grid square are stacks of standardised totes on top of each other. There are no aisles between them for staff to retrieve stock, because there is no need: These totes are instead picked out from above by robots.
These robots are about the size of a washing machine, and traverse the grid system on rails - able to move on two axes (think rooks on a chessboard). To pick out a tote they simply have to slide over to the stack they need, and then they reach down and lift out what they need. Think something like Thunderbird 2 if, instead of depositing diggers into disaster zones, it was instead designed to run on wheels tasked with ensuring a carton of milk successfully made it into your shopping basket.
Ocado’s plan is for its new warehouse - which will apparently be about the size of a football pitch - is to have dozens (hundreds?) of these robots operating simultaneously, with the central system managing traffic so they don’t bump into each other.
I know what you’re thinking: What if the required tote is beneath another tote? If each robot can only carry one tote at a time, how does it get what’s below? And this is where it gets a little mind-blowing: The robots are able to swarm together and cooperate.
Say, for example, a customer has ordered a bottle of Diet Coke, but it’s in a tote stored beneath the packets of Cornflakes. One robot would hover over first, pick out the Cornflakes tote - and then another robot would glide in, reach down and pick out the Coke. Easy. Apparently the robots are capable of reaching down up to 20 layers of boxes.
Because of the standardisation built into this, red customer totes can be stored alongside green storage - meaning that there’s no need for separate storage of completed orders.
4G and AI and Optimisation
Underlying this revolutionary warehouse structure is a constant push for optimisation and efficiency, as with the current conveyor system warehouse. Ocado describes the challenge as a “4D” optimisation problem - making sure that not only are the right totes in the right place across a three dimensional grid, but also making sure they are where they need to be at the right time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ocado are one of the biggest name uses of Google’s TensorFlow cloud machine learning system - and the company also makes use of everything from Amazon cloud storage to Nvidia’s GPU data crunching facilities.
So it all sounds rather futuristic - so perhaps it is unsurprising that Ocado has also had to develop some new technologies in-house to make sure that it all works.
For example, because of the size of the warehouse the robots couldn’t simply operate using wifi because of distance and latency. So instead, Ocado has had to build them to use what is essentially 4G technology - but on an unlicensed part of the wireless spectrum (so not the same airwaves that your phone uses). This enables to the robots to check in ten times a second, so Ocado’s central system knows exactly where they are and what they are up to.
AI and machine learning is also being used under the hood on some lesser considered problems than simply how best to lay out the warehouse. Apparently AI will be used to maintain the army of robots, by using machine learning to spot signs of wear and tear in the analytics data collected in the firmware of each machine. The hope is that rather than had a machine break down in the middle of the grid, engineers will be able to spot ominous signs ahead of time and will be able to pull dodgy robots off of the grid for an MOT test. More generally, when it comes to overseeing the grid as a whole, rather than send people dangling over top a la Mission Impossible, the company are apparently considering using drones to fly overhead for visual inspections.
It feels unspoken to a certain extent, but ultimately to goal is obviously to remove as many humans from the process as possible - as that means cheaper goods and thicker profit margins for Ocado. And as I mentioned in part one, this is definitely a problem that society at large is going to have to consider.
Already in the current Ocado warehouse, and seemingly in the new one too, they are almost there: Seemingly the only remaining need for humans is “picking”. That is to say, taking items from the storage totes and dropping them into shopping bags mounted in customer totes.
The reason humans are still needed is a long running problem in automation: Picking stuff up. Not only does Ocado need to transfer objects of different sizes into boxes and bags, but it also needs to do it carefully. Humans have an instinctive ability just how hard to grip something to lift: You apply a different amount of force lifting up, say, a bag of flour than you do an egg. Machines are less good at this, which is presumably why Ocado is shovelling money into its “Soft Manipulation” project. If the videos Ocado Technology is posting to YouTube are any indication… we’re clearly getting there slowly:
Grocery Robots As A Service
The first new warehouse is currently being completed in Andover. The robots are currently being developed in Ocado’s “secret” lab, which they not-so-secretly told me is in Welwyn Garden City.
What’s also interesting though isn’t just the technology Ocado is building - but also the new business model. The new warehouse is part of what it calls “Ocado Smart Platform” - OSP. The company’s long term goal is to take the technology it has developed and offer it to other retailers who need an “end to end” system for selling stuff online.
The idea is that this same warehouse technology - the same warehouses in fact - can be re-purposed. So that the customer might think they’re buying from one company, but it’ll be Ocado’s software running the website, Ocado’s robotic warehouse fulfilling the order and Ocado’s vans making the deliveries.
Ocado also operates a few other offshoot business built on its technology: a beauty store, a pet food store, and a kitchen store. Perhaps most notably rival supermarket Morrisons - which, until now, has lagged behind Ocado and rival supermarkets online, has signed up for Ocado's OSP offering. All other companies interested in OSP have to do is the back end stuff - finding the stock to put into Ocado’s totes.
Ocado’s real sights though are set internationally, as competition laws would prevent Ocado from working with its grocery rivals at home. The company tells me it especially wants to target supermarket chains in the likes of France, Italy and Spain, as well as further afield in Europe, North America and Asia, where online grocery shopping isn’t very advanced. Apparently where it does exist, it’s mostly a case of ordering online and then having to drive to the supermarket to pick up your goods - a long way from Ocado’s robots helping bring your shopping direct to your front door.
So could the Ocado Smart Platform end up being the secret sauce that ends up powering the next generation of online shopping? No doubt Amazon is looking on with interest too. Say what you will about the role of humans in this increasingly robotic vision of the future, but by sharing its vision with me, Ocado is clearly not lacking the ambition a system like this requires. Sadly, unlike the Hatfield warehouse I toured, I haven’t had a chance to see this new system in action - this is merely what was described to me by Ocado’s spokespeople as the warehouse is currently under construction. On the strength of everything else I’ve seen from the company though, I don’t doubt the company’s ability to make it happen.