March 17, 2016      

The speed of e-commerce has put demands on warehousing and logistics providers for ever-faster order fulfillment, particularly where perishables are concerned. Industrial automation is especially attractive for repetitive tasks and in the face of labor shortages.

Last month, online grocer Ocado Group Ltd. and Cambridge Consultants Ltd. announced that they had devised a way to control as many as 1,000 robots at a time in Ocado’s warehouses.

Ocado ships more than 2 million items daily to customers in the U.K. The company has 700 in-house developers working on software for managing its customer fulfillment centers.

“We already operate the largest fulfillment centers in the world, plus a non-food warehouse,” said Paul Clarke, director of technology at Ocado. “About two years ago, we set about building a completely new solution for automating these warehouses.”

The proprietary Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) is an end-to-end, modular fulfillment system, including logistics automation hardware and software for everything from customer orders through delivery. Ocado is offering OSP to other retailers.

“It became clear to us that we were going to need to command and control huge swarms of robots in real time with great precision,” Clarke told Robotics Business Review. “That was going to require communicating with those devices multiple times per second with guaranteed levels of latency.”

“It was clear early on that no technology existed which would do what Ocado needed,” said Tim Ensor, head of connected devices at Cambridge Consultants. “That meant they needed to create a completely custom solution to achieve the required performance — but do so in a way that had a manageable risk profile and in the minimum amount of time.”

A robotic hive for optimal efficiency
One of the biggest challenges facing logistics providers is controlling numerous robots in close quarters. Ocado recently reached 250,000 orders in a week for the first time.

The OSP test site in Andover, England, is about the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Ocado’s robots operate on a grid of rails atop stacks of containers.

This patent-pending design is more space-efficient than the miles of conveyor belts or aisles of conventional warehouses or the movable shelves of Inc.‘s Kiva Systems unit, claims the company.

The Ocado Smart Platform's hive design

“This is a much denser solution,” Clarke said. “We can store more items and retrieve them with far greater throughput.”

Cambridge Consultants helped develop the wireless communication system, which it called “a world first in radio design.” The system communicates with 1,000 machines up to 10 times per second.

“We couldn’t do it with 2G to 4G technology,” Ensor told Robotics Business Review. “That spectrum is owned by mobile operators. No technology existed which would provide real-time control and scale up to thousands of devices in a small area. It drove us to think from the ground up.”

“We created a system based on the principles of 4G but which can support 1,000 devices from a single base station — over 10 times more than is usually possible,” Ensor explained. “At the same time, we needed to ensure it met the requirements of operating in license-free spectrum. It is the first time this has all been done with 4G technology.”

By using the 5GHz Wi-Fi band, Cambridge was able to achieve the bandwidth and reliability that Ocado needs for real-time and parallel control within 50 meters (164 feet) of each base station. According to Ensor, this will result in “the most densely packed mobile network in the world.”

“It’s a challenge on the scale of attempting to control the movements of all the aircraft that fly in and out of London’s Heathrow Airport in a day — but all at the same time and while they?re circling around within a few kilometers of each other,” Ensor said.

The network-configuration software is also scalable, so the technology could coordinate as many as 20,000 robots, hundreds of thousands of containers, and millions of items.

“In order for the system to scale up, it required thousands of robots to be moving around on a checkerboard surface efficiently,” Ensor said. “It was a monumental challenge.”

In addition to new facilities in Andover and Erith, Ocado is building (with robots) a site in East London that will house 700,000 crates. It could contribute up to £1.2 billion ($1.71 billion) in revenue, said David Sharp, head of technology 10x at Ocado.

“We expect to go live shortly,” said Ensor.

“Our robots are also completely new,” Clarke said. “We wrote all the software to orchestrate the robots’ movements ourselves.”

“It’s not just to see that they don’t hit one another — there’s lots of optimization, machine learning for routes taken and actions performed,” he said. “It all has to happen in real time, completely automated.”

“In the same way we’ve been evolving for 14 years, we’re in this for the long term,” Clarke added. “We’re building a very scalable platform for grocers and other retailers.”

In our next article, we’ll look at Clarke’s expectation of a “delivery pipe to the home,” how OSP ties into the emerging Internet of Things, and how Ocado and Cambridge are offering to share their disruptive technology worldwide.