Ambition and Brief
Throughout Ocado’s history, their attention has been focused on developing the best online grocery operation in the world. This single-minded approach to becoming the largest online-only grocery retailer was born from not being content with the status quo; recognising that there was a faster, more flexible, cost-effective and lower-risk way of delivering groceries to the mass market.
Ocado’s drive to leapfrog their already market-leading position gave them the vision to create a fully integrated end-to-end grocery fulfilment platform with market-leading efficiency, proprietary technology and innovation at its core.
The vision for the Ocado Smart Platform included a densely packed stack of goods within a grid structure which are stored and then retrieved by a swarm of autonomous robots. The crates of groceries are then delivered in record time to Ocado’s human or robot workers who then pack the orders for individual customers.
To harness maximum efficiency from their fulfilment centres, Ocado required the proprietary robotic hardware to push the boundaries of what was possible. The robots needed to accelerate and decelerate rapidly, reach speeds of several metres per second and stop with millimetre accuracy. They also had to pick up and carry a heavy payload over long distances and be able to run for several hours on a single battery charge.
Truly revolutionary, nothing of this scale, sophistication and modularity existed before Ocado began their journey and thus innovation was required in many elements of the system to make it to full operational reality.
To support the manufacture of the robot swarm, Ocado approached Tharsus.
Tharsus Approachand Contribution
Operating as a vertically integrated development and manufacturing arm to the Ocado business, Tharsus worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ocado project team to imagine, define and produce the robotic hardware that forms the foundation of their game-changing Smart Platform.
Working in close collaboration with Ocado’s technical teams, Tharsus’ engineers and system architects helped chart a course through the robot design process. We used our technical and practical know-how to understand the commercial and technical needs and constraints of the project before exploring a wide range of solution options.
The first instance of our prototyping activity was focused around increasing our shared technical knowledge. Through quickly refining the options and developing proof-of-principle prototypes we were able to prove the feasibility of working elements within the robot to identify and understand the underlying technical risks.
With a greater understanding of ‘what should work’, we worked together to create a specification for the product to move the project out of the agile exploration of solutions and into a more rigid and controlled part of the prototyping process. Using our newfound collective knowledge, we created the first iteration of a working prototype which was then used to inform testing and manufacturing plans.
Our dedicated supply chain and manufacturing teams developed the full Bill of Materials and build-pack and began leveraging our relationships with core suppliers. This enabled us to put the first batch of robots through pilot manufacture in August 2015.
After a series of prototype iterations based on learnings from live product testing, we ramped up production of the first generation machine with the capacity to produce thousands of units per year.
The Tharsus product creation process is an iterative cycle. Having launched the first generation machine, we’re now in the process of going back through the development loop with Ocado and the first generation of robots – this time armed with all of the knowledge, customer feedback and technology understanding that we’ve mutually acquired. This makes for an improved robot that is built on strong foundations – and enables further reduction of the cost associated with the product whilst enhancing its performance.
At the end of 2016, Ocado successfully started shipping groceries to customers in the south of England from its newest warehouse in Andover. Over the course of 2017, they will ramp up operations and grow their fleet of robots to around 1000 machines.
The level of performance Ocado can now achieve is a revolution for grocery logistics. The new facility can pick a customer’s order of around 50 items in a few minutes compared to several hours at existing fulfilment centres.
This success is the first step towards moving their business towards using robots in their next facility in Erith, London. This facility will house a fleet of several thousand machines and will significantly expand Ocado’s ability to efficiently supply groceries to customers across the south east of the UK.
Ocado is now offering this end-to-end fulfilment solution with a swarm of Tharsus-built robots to other retailers around the world as part of the Ocado Smart Platform. This platform will transform Ocado’s business from a fast-growing online retailer in the UK to a global provider of world-leading fulfilment platforms to other business applications and markets.