Welcome to the automated warehouse of the future
Last year, Ocado Group, a British online-only supermarket ploughed major investment into its UK logistics hub and technology platform, including fully automated third and fourth warehouses at Andover, Hampshire and Erith, South-east London.
“At full capacity, this latest state-of-the-art Erith Customer Fulfilment Centre (CFC) will be the largest automated warehouse for online grocery in the world”, said Ocado CEO Tim Steiner. It uses over a thousand robots, each the size and shape of a washing machine.
And when fully up and running, Ocado’s Andover operation will be its most advanced yet, processing 3.5 million items or around 65,000 orders every week.
A typical CFC includes two modular grids where thousands of robots work collaboratively across two temperature regimes (ambient and chilled) to assemble the items needed for a customer order in five minutes. The new paradigm is all about using space as efficiently as possible. Items are placed in crates like in traditional warehouses, but those crates are now stored in huge stacks, up to 17 boxes high. Their position in this stack seems to be at random — a box of razors next to cod fillets, for example — but it’s algorithmically decided; with frequently accessed items placed on the top and rarer purchases near the bottom. On top of this hoard, the robots do their work.
Each of the robots has a central cavity and a set of claws it uses to grab crates and pull them up into its interior. It can then move the crate to a new location or drop it down a vertical chute to a picking station. At these stations, human employees grab the items they need from the crate (a screen in front of them tells them what to take) and places them in a shopping bag in another crate. Both these crates are then sent back into the grid, to be refilled with shopping items or moved on to the delivery bay.
Humans do the unpacking and packing, while in the middle, robots sort and rearrange this vast inventory 24 hours a day.
Robots actions are coordinated by a central computer in order to be used as efficiently as possible. For example, by teaming up to quickly dig down through the stack and retrieve uncommon items. “If you want to pick a typical, 50-item order, they will help each other,” Ocado’s chief technology officer says. A group of robots can come together in a huddle, split up, “and pick that order in a matter of minutes.” In a traditional warehouse where items are scattered around on distant shelves, this process can take hours.
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