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Ocado

Next-generation warehouse automation

Brief

Ocado is the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer – shipping more than 200,000 orders every week to customers around the UK.

To accelerate its growth, the company embarked on the development of a groundbreaking warehouse automation solution designed to push the boundaries of efficiency, modularity and scalability. This solution employs autonomous robots moving around above a grid, storing and retrieving crates stacked within the grid. Ocado is deploying this technology within its next generation of automated grocery fulfilment centres – the first two of which are under construction.

The combination of this new hardware platform, and its end-to-end e-commerce, fulfilment and logistics software platform running in the cloud, form the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP). Ocado will use OSP to enable some of the largest ‘bricks and mortar’ grocery retailers around the world to move online.

To make this new warehouse automation solution work, Ocado needed a radio control system to manage robots moving around a warehouse at high speed. The system had to co-ordinate thousands of these fast-moving machines to within a fraction of a second to maximise warehouse efficiency.

Approach

Existing mobile communications technologies did not offer the real-time control or scalability that Ocado needed. We had to create a completely custom solution.

After considering all the possible approaches, we identified that a system based on 4G telecoms technology deployed in the unlicensed 5GHz Wi-Fi band gave the best chance of achieving Ocado’s goal.

Addressing the major technical risks first gave Ocado confidence that, working together, we could achieve the required performance. Having agreed the approach, the joint team built the new wireless control system from the ground up.

We created a dedicated test facility on our site and secured regulatory approval for the system. We then supported the Ocado team in transferring the technology into its own test facility and then into its first live production site.

Benefit

The result is a breakthrough in radio design – the most densely packed mobile network in the world.

It’s enabling Ocado to control 1,000 robots from a single base station, communicating with them 10 times a second – all within an area the size of an Olympic swimming pool. It’s also scalable – so could potentially handle 20 times the number of movements. And because it works in licence-exempt spectrum like Wi-Fi, it can be deployed quickly anywhere in the world.

“Working closely with Cambridge Consultants has enabled us to make our ambitious vision a reality,” said Mark Richardson, operations director at Ocado. “As well as using the Ocado Smart Platform to power our own business through its next phase of growth, it is available to our partners globally.”

Beyond logistics, Ocado also sees potential for the system to be used across a variety of industries – at sites ranging from factories and construction sites to airfields.