As Featured on FastCompany.com
“This has to be a render,” is my first thought as I watch these robots moving quickly over a seemingly infinite grid of crates. I am wrong. “Because the robots are brand new, it looks like a render but in fact it’s 100% real,” answers Alex Voica, the head of technology PR and communications at Ocado, a British online-only supermarket that delivers orders to customers straight from its warehouses.
Ocado sells everything you can find in a brick-and-mortar supermarket–from meat, dairy, and produce to its own brand of home products, third-party goods, and even flowers, toys, and magazines. When it comes to online delivery, speed and efficiency are paramount, which is why the company has been working on automation since it was founded in 2000. While other companies rely on human workers to find and buy all of the items on an online customer’s shopping list, Ocado is using a new kind of robot–or, more specifically, a swarm of them.
At an Ocado warehouse in the English town of Andover, a swarm of 1,000 robots races over a grid the size of a soccer field, filling orders and replacing stock. The new system, which went live earlier this year, can fulfill a 50-item order in under five minutes–something that used to take about two hours at human-only facilities. It’s been so successful that Ocado is now building a new warehouse that’s three times larger in Erith, southeast of London. When it comes online, it will be the world’s largest automated warehouse for grocery shopping.
Ocado’s robots, manufactured by the U.K. company Tharsus, travel over the warehouse grid at speeds of 13 feet per second. The grid holds containers organized in multiple layers, holding all the products that Ocado sells on its website–more than 50,000 in all. When its servers receive an order, the software commands the robot swarm to collect all the items. The robots closest to each product races toward them, lowering a hook to grab and pull the crate that contains the item. Then, they head toward a static location where, under the grid, a human worker awaits. The first robot to arrive lowers the container and, after the human grabs the item, moves on to fulfill other orders. Other robots repeat the process until the worker completes the entire order.
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