The Industry 4.0 Summit, held at the end of February/beginning of March this year, saw many experts sharing their thoughts with attendees and we were proud to be among them.
You can find out more about what went on at Industry 4.0 with our reflections on the event here.
Our own John Hannah contributed to the popular ‘Innovation for Growth’ discussion, sharing a Tharsus case study with the panel and participating in the Q&A session that followed.
You can now view the video of his talk online here, but in case you have no speakers, we thought we’d transcribe the presentation in full so you can find out what was said.
Innovation for Growth: Tharsus and advanced robotics
John Hannah, Robotics and Autonomous Systems Lead, Tharsus
So, who are Tharsus?
Well, Tharsus are a product development and contract manufacturing business – recently named as one of the UK’s fastest growing technology companies.
We help ambitious and forward thinking businesses take advantage of emerging robotic and machine technologies to disrupt, lead and grow their markets.
That’s our corporate spiel…
But, in layman’s terms, think of us as the “outsourced skunkworks with manufacturing capability” that sits behind many of the UK’s most innovative businesses – Turning their brilliant ideas into revenue generating machines.
So it’s been our mission over the past decade to make the process of creating disruptive products, simple.
We very rarely break cover from stealth mode and talk about our work, but over the past 12 months we’ve attracted quite a lot of attention for our collaborative partnership with Ocado, where we designed, developed and now manufacture the autonomous robots that sit at the heart of their online fulfilment platform.
Whilst the Ocado project has been instrumental in getting us to where we are today, (and I’ll talk about that particular project in a bit more detail – a little later) Our work in the robotics and wider 4.0 hardware space spans a plethora of industries, from retail, logistics, to agriculture, medical and everything in between.
From SMART, connected, service-enabling machines, to sophisticated productivity enhancing robots.
With a small team of around 140, including a cohort of some of the UK’s brightest engineers, a quarter of a million sq. ft. of manufacturing space and a growth trajectory that’s going to get us just north of the moon – we’ve created a single place where both innovative start-ups and FTSE 500’s can bring their 4.0 hardware ideas and have them brought to life, in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible.
But, we haven’t always looked like this….
Tharsus’ story is one of extraordinary growth and complete transformation.
Our rich and challenging history has seen us grow by pivoting in response to various economic downturns, technological opportunities and the shortcomings of the product realisation industry.
Whilst we’ve been in a constant state of growth over the past half-century, it’s really been over the most recent 3 or 4 years that we’ve been experiencing true exponential growth, as the impending tsunami that is the 4th Industrial revolution edges closer and brings with it new opportunities for our customers to disrupt their industries in ways completely unimaginable before….
So just to contextualise all of this, Tharsus started its life off in 1964 as a result of a lucky pools windfall – resembling something across between a ‘regional metal basher and a social club for the lads’.
In 2001, we were forced to diversify as the .com bubble burst, causing chaos within our very concentrated customer list – which at the time was a who’s who of the tech world.
Rather than simply riding out the storm, we acquired a contract manufacturing outfit who had just won the tender to kit out the London underground with Advertising displays. Capitalising on that and having littered the rest of the country in advertising boxes disguised as bus stops and interactive wayfinders – we earned the title as the ‘UK’s largest Adbox producer’… but even that was short lived.
Because in 2008, the unexpected happened. The outdoor advertising world came crashing down around us in the face of collapsing revenues, increased bank debts and the spiralling costs of new technologies. Basically no one had any money to advertise with.
But every cloud… and all that, as It was at that point in time that we realised exactly where our passions lay. We’d developed a real hunger for making other people’s products, acquiring technology knowledge and putting it into practice, albeit centred around one particular industry vertical.
It didn’t take us long before we created our Original Equipment Design and Manufacture business model, which was born from the realisation that there was a better, faster and less risky way to develop and manufacture products.
Our OEDM product realisation platform which still underpins our business today, ultimately enables our customers to cost effectively add engineering expertise, supply chain planning and manufacturing capability to their businesses by leveraging our cross-industry technical wizardry, production capability and proven processes.
It allows Tharsus to take responsibility for our customer’s products from initial idea to volume production, whilst they focus on their core business activities with absolute piece of mind.
And by stitching together, highly creative and agile product development with on-demand and transparent manufacturing, it turns the art of taking products to market from being a typically burdensome fixed cost, into an easy to manage variable one – essential when creating disruptive new products for new markets.
So, over the past decade we’ve been proving this model, defining our cultural framework and iterating our processes, and as a result we’ve designed, developed and manufactured over 50 intelligent machines for our customers, and realised business outcomes in excess of £2.5Billion and counting.
What’s even better is that as we enter this new era of unprecedented change, our model is becoming increasingly attractive to those who are looking to move fast in disrupting their industries. People like Ocado who by working with us are now genuine contenders for the top spot as global robotic innovators, hot on the trail of Amazon.
So, Tharsus’ 4.0 journey is two-fold:
As a manufacturer – playing with, developing and deploying 4.0 technologies to advance ourselves in the manufacturing market.
And, as creators of disruptive 4.0 products for our customers.
By sharing a bit of the Ocado story (who I’d consider to be a 4.0 super user) and highlighting what we’ve learnt through working alongside them, I’m hoping we can all be inspired to pave our own way in this (to quote Jürgen Meier “Made Smarter”) revolution.
So what does a 4.0 super-user look like?
Well, in my eyes a super-user is not just someone who has a massive CAPEX budget and blows it on off-the shelf solutions.
A super user then, is someone who sees the impact 4.0 tech is going to have on their industry and then capitalises on that by creating or commissioning their own proprietary products and systems that both advance the technology areas maturity (whether that be Ai, Robotics, blockchain, or whatever…) and in turn unlocks a significant competitive advantage for their business.
I suppose what I’m trying to get at is…. Whilst there are many off the shelf 4.0 solutions that you can buy and implement today – if the robotics industry is anything to go by, the majority of solutions are still very embryonic – over promised and under-delivered – we should all be looking at these platforms as a stepping stone innovate from – the most exciting part of 4.0 is that the best is yet to come. We live in a time where bespoke is king. Where the off-the-shelf paradigm is quickly becoming extinct. Where true competitive advantage is a result of innovation investment, modularity and market intelligence.
So how did Ocado achieve super user status?
Well, our story with Ocado began around 5 years ago.
At that point in 2012, Ocado were already prolific users of automation, they’d maxed out on 3.0 – shipping around 150,000 orders a week on a platform of whirring machines and sophisticated conveyor systems that stretched for 25km’s – using high-fidelity mathematical simulations to hone their algorithms that would have looked more at home in an air traffic control tower.
But Ocado began to realise that their consumers (like you and me) didn’t want a forestalled delivery window. They wanted their shopping as soon as they hit the buy now button, and they didn’t really want to have to pay a premium for it either. So Ocado made it their mission to find a more flexible, cost-effective and lower-risk way to deliver groceries to the mass market.
So you could say that the Ocado Smart platform was born from Ocado not being content with the status quo. And so the vision was to create a fully integrated, end-to-end grocery fulfilment platform with market-leading efficiency, proprietary technology and innovation at its core.
The OSP is the physical embodiment of that vision. Paul Clark, Ocado’s CTO talks about building a pipe from Ocado’s fulfilment centres directly to consumers’ kitchen tables. Well, the OSP is the foundations on which that pipe is built.
A densely packed stack of goods (48K different items and counting), which are stored and then retrieved by a swarm of Tharsus built 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 new 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 4 meters per second and stop with millimetre accuracy. They also had to pick up and carry a heavy and unevenly distributed payload over long distances, be able to run for several hours on a single battery charge and operate in swarms of up to 4000.
The Ocado “bot” is a smart product in every sense of the word (from predictive maintenance, and real-time performance feedback to remote monitoring and control) these veracious data hungry machines have allowed Ocado to re-imagine the fulfilment process across whole industries beyond online food delivery.
Truly revolutionary nothing of this scale, sophistication or modularity existed before. To put it all into context: What used to take 2.5Hrs to pick an average shop of 50 items – now only takes Ocado 5 minutes.
So, what have I learnt through working with Ocado? Well…
Mindset is key – if you want to use 4.0 as an opportunity to elevate your business you have to be prepared to suspended yourselves in a constant state of disruption. Ocado stay disruptive by constantly looking for new way to disrupt themselves before someone else does it to them. Disruption to them is not an end point, it’s a permanent state of turbulent flux.
Innovation is just business as usual – It’s not enough to move fast anymore, you have to constantly work out new ways to increase your acceleration, it’s not enough to just be innovative, you have to look for ways to innovate your innovation teams. Ocado have their R&D streams which allows them to realise what’s possible today, and beyond that they have their 10X streams where the truly revolutionary happens.
Start building the team, TODAY – So, building a strong future focused team is essential to not only keep your finger on the pulse of 4.0 technologies, and the direction of travel, but it will also help you create the tipping point required to achieve super user status. In parallel to the Tharsus team, Ocado were building a 1000 strong engineering team with skills ranging from machine learning, natural language processing, deep neural networks, Basian statistics, time-series analysis, electronics, data scientists and embedded systems. Realising the OSP without this team would have been impossible.
Ocado spent a lot of time and effort building this teams so that they could bring a lot of previously outsourced technical work – in-house, clear their accumulated technical debt and have more control over the direction of their technically focused future.
And finally, Fortune is going to favour those who are brave enough to get their feet wet – Experiment with these technologies before they mature, but remember to see them for what they are – a starting point.
Or take a leaf out of Ocado’s book and find your Tharsus.
So, that’s my spiel, thanks for listening.
If John’s talk has interested you and you’d like to get in touch to talk about your own ambitions for robotic and machine technologies, you can reach us here.