A swarm of bots running on the world’s densest mobile network is revolutionising the warehouse picking and fulfilment process for online grocery deliveries and has earned its developer Ocado Technology a place in the Technology Leaders Index.
With online grocery deliveries growing exponentially during the Covid-19 pandemic – analysts at Neilsen reported online grocery spending topped £1.2billion for the first time in the four weeks to May 16 and year-on-year growth of more than 100% – ensuring orders can be fulfilled promptly while also generating sufficient revenue for supermarkets is paramount. Ocado Technology’s solution, recognised in the Technology Leaders Index for its innovations in cloud, data, emerging tech and sustainability, is helping improve the speed, accuracy and efficiency of grocery picking and packing through automation technology, allowing retailers to do online grocery scalably, sustainably and profitably.
Known as The Hive, Ocado Technology‘s solution resembles a giant chessboard and is filled with smart mobile machines, or bots, that are ‘plugged’ into the world around them through IoT. It is thought to be the densest mobile system in the world, and can communicate with thousands of bots from a single base station ten times a second. The bots generate around 5,000 data points 1,000 times per second – that’s 1GB of data per bot, per day, or a total of 4TB daily within one customer fulfilment centre (CFC). This data is streamed into the cloud and analysed for bot maintenance and “healthcare”.
Bots whizz around The Hive at a closing speed of 4m/s with 5mm between them. These precision movements are orchestrated in real-time by the company’s machine-learning ‘air traffic’ control system – DASH – which is enabled by 4G LTE-like mobile technology in the unlicensed spectrum. To create new levels of optimisation and efficiencies from our processes, Ocado Technology has also created digital twins of its end-to-end operations, running more than 620,000 simulations, covering over two million hours of warehouse run time, in the past year.
The benefits to Ocado Technology to its customers are obvious; The Hive’s bots can pick over 50 items every five minutes, a process that took over an hour using the standard conveyer belt manual method, and many orders can be picked simultaneously. Food can also be moved in and out of warehouses faster, reducing errors and cutting food waste. Ocado.com has 0.0387% food waste as a percentage of total products, compared to the industry average of 2-3%.
Looking to the future, the team behind The Hive, led by Ocado CTO Paul Clarke and including Matthew Whelan, head of new concept design at Ocado Technology, Alex Harvey, engineering director – handling robotics, Ocado Technology, Paul Turner, engineering director – retrieval robotics, Ocado Technology, as well as many others, are looking at how The Hive’s automation can be applied to other industries such as vertical farming, assisted living, car parking and baggage handling.
They are also introducing new elements such as Robotic Suction Pick, enabling the automation of the last frontier of grocery picking – the packing of items into customer bags. So you won’t see any unexpected items in the bagging area at Ocado’s warehouses.