The Hive resembles a giant chessboard and is filled with smart mobile machines

Robotic Hive technology behind online grocery boom

Image credit: Ocado

Long before the pandemic made online, home-delivery groceries mainstream, Ocado Technology was developing innovative solutions to streamline the whole process. Back in 2019, the team won the E&T Innovation Award in the Intelligent Systems category. In this interview Tim Fryer speaks to James Gralton, the company’s chief engineering officer, about the ‘The Hive’ – Ocado’s Bot Swarm, the technology behind it and the impact it has had.

E&T: Could you start by telling us how and when the idea for this solution was conceived

James Gralton (pictured below): Our founders always had the ambition to do online grocery differently and to use cutting-edge technology and automation through centralised fulfilment to deliver an amazing service to our customers. The tech that was available at the time wasn’t really appropriate; it was really designed for smal-basket shopping. We quite quickly realised that we were going to need to build it ourselves, and over the past 20 years or so we’ve continued to do that. Now we build and license that technology out to partners around the globe.

E&T: Did you have set objectives? What was your starting point and what did you hope to achieve?

JG: The guiding principle, obviously, was to offer an amazing service to our customers, to offer them the freshest food, the greatest choice and convenience. Convenience being the biggest difference – being able to offer customers delivery direct to their home, in one-hour slots, which back in the early 2000s was far less common than it is now.

James Gralton

Image credit: Ocado

We wanted to do that using automated centralised fulfilment. This wasn’t about bricks and mortar stores, which Ocado didn’t have. It was a completely ground-up company that we built to pick and ship our products from centralised warehouses into the vehicles and directly to the customer’s doorstep. It all grew from there, we were always breaking new ground. We were always challenging ourselves. And we were focusing on how to identify inefficiencies and then solve them through software, hardware or even operational processes.

E&T: From the outset did you know that an automated robotic fulfilment system was going to be your solution or did that evolve over time?

JG:  Yes, it was the case but it also evolved. Our first-generation warehouse was very different to the one that we see today. Our Hatfield site, which was our first site and has been open for about 20 years, is still incredibly advanced and extremely efficient, but it’s a different model. We put so much optimisation into that; the technology that was required to optimise the parts and manage the flow around the warehouse was incredibly complex and incredibly smart. But we felt there was a different way of doing it. We felt there was a way to build on what we’ve learned, an even more efficient solution in the space it took up, the capacity to deliver and the quality of services offered to the customer. So yes, we always started with the ambition of using automation to deliver groceries, but that itself has changed a number of times over the years.

E&T: Could you outline the solution as it rolled out over the first few years – the Bot Swarm and the 4G technology, which was still pretty new back then?

JG: We launched our first Ocado proprietary automation and robotics fulfilment centre in 2016. That was the first site that had our software and in-house hardware operating together, delivering groceries to customers under this new Ocado Smart Platform [OSP] warehouse model we’d created.

Over the first few years we had to continue iterating. The solution we had was optimised but we knew there was more opportunity for us to optimise it further to make better use of the bots in order to pick and ship more customer orders.

Another key area of focus for us was deploying at pace. We started to sell this solution to retailers around the world. We had to go into those different territories and with the partner build these warehouses and get them up and running for them.

Another key evolution for us was evolving the size of the sites. We have a site that can process over 200,000 orders a week just in South London. But in some cases, you need to have smaller sites that are just focused on 60 or 70,000 orders per week.

Ocado Group On Grid Robotic Pick Overhead Closeup

Image credit: Ocado

Furthermore, as we want to get closer to a customer, you sometimes have to fit that solution into smaller and smaller sites. Looking at really local sites that can process a few thousand orders a week really challenges us to think how we take that big centralised fulfilment solution that we started off with and shrink it down, but still maintain those same efficiencies. Presently, we’ve got 12 sites live, six more going live this year and over 50 planned globally. We’ve had to really think about how we scale-up our ambition and deliver for our partners across the globe.

E&T: What did you achieve during that first phase – did automation operation time reduce as you hoped?

JG: It was across a set of things really, but our metrics have improved steadily – as we expected them to, of course, with the effort and energy that we’ve had to continue putting in. Recently our 500 Series robot, which roams around on top of the grid, surpassed the reliability targets that we had set it for this year.

The maintenance of the equipment as well, which is another important component to automation, is hitting the long-term targets for the OSP business model. The operational efficiencies of overall processing of customer orders through the warehouse has gone from being great to even better, but there’s so much more we can do and we were never really happy to say ‘well done, we’ve got here, that’s enough’ – far from it.

E&T: Has it had any benefits from an environmental, sustainability or waste point of view?

JG: Absolutely. Automation plays a really important part in helping us achieve the lowest food waste in the industry. It’s not automation in isolation. We have a lot of really smart systems in the background forecasting what products a customer will want to order, up to three, four or five weeks in advance, well before they’ve even considered placing that order themselves.

The combination of that software and the automation together allows us to achieve industry-leading values of food waste where we were at only 0.4 per cent of the product we bring in being wasted. In addition, fresh food comes into the warehouse and can go out to the customer in a matter of hours. This is great for the customer – it gives them the freshest product when they want and where they want. So these are the metrics we’re really proud of and we’re really focused on, reducing food waste and giving customers an amazing service.

E&T: Technology-wise, what do you think will be next?

JG:  That’s a really timely question. Earlier this year we had an Ocado Re:Imagined event where we launched our next steps of kind of innovations for our whole stack, so not just focused on the automation.

To pull out a couple of the things we announced in the event, we’ve got the 600 Series robots, a new generation of robot, that is built around additive manufacturing. It’s a really novel approach to building hardware where we can kind of iterate much more rapidly than you would normally expect in hardware projects. This is allowing us to build a lighter, cheaper and more efficient robot, which really unlocks a cascade of benefits. That lighter robot can now operate on a less strong grid – we can build a grid that’s itself lighter and faster to install. This means that we can build these warehouses smaller, closer to customers in existing facilities, and also build them much quicker than we perhaps have previously.

In addition to the 600 Series robot, we’ve also got on-grid robotic arms that are using computer vision and advanced sensing, to pick and pack a customer’s grocery shopping right on top of the grid. So rather than having to deliver the customer box for one of our personal shoppers to pick, we can pick those items right up on top of the grid, making the whole solution even more efficient.

E&T: When you started on this journey nobody could have foreseen the pandemic and the effect it would have on home-delivery groceries. However, do you think this just accelerated the inevitable or will people return physically to supermarkets as time goes on?

JG:  Since Covid-19, demand for online has skyrocketed. And you know, research has already proven that customers who go online, stay online. Not everyone, of course, but that many of them see the benefits it can bring. And of course, as more and more of the world moves online, you need an economically viable solution. Our platform gives retailers and their customers what they need, which is really going to help their transition online continue and continue at pace.

E&T: What effect did recognition through the Innovation Awards have  –presumably customers would be unmoved by such things but did it help when it came to investment internally?

JG: This tech has been critical to transforming the business and driving our international growth. We started off as a UK retailer and are now a global technology company. For many years we were quite secretive about technology, we were focused on solving the problems and safeguarding our IP, but the Hive was such an important innovation for us.

As I mentioned, it was a culmination of many years of work across many teams. Having that work recognised by such an influential body as the IET was really an important milestone and generated a great sense of pride within the business. It also definitely allows more people to see what it is we do, and perhaps the sort of things that they could do, and help us achieve by joining the team!

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