Driven by an algorithm, a fleet of 2,000 robots operates in a warehouse located in London to collect up to two million food items per day, a rate that is five times faster than a skilled human worker.
The London-based warehouse can be described as a robotic supermarket, spanning over an area larger than three football fields and accommodating over 2,000 robots. These robots move at high speeds in a complex dance, governed by artificial intelligence, and manage to collect up to two million food items per day, which is five times faster than a trained human worker.
The robots in the London warehouse are tasked with efficiently gathering food items for Ocado, an online supermarket in the UK that utilizes cutting-edge automation technology. Originally designed as the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) for internal use, the system’s success has led to its licensing to other supermarkets.
According to the company, using robots instead of human workers enables cheaper and faster deliveries, while also addressing labor shortages by requiring fewer personnel in their warehouses. In addition, they can operate in smaller warehouses while maintaining quick and efficient operations.
How does it work?
A new robotic picking arm, set to be implemented in new and some existing warehouses later this year, is expected to reduce the need for human workers to pick and pack groceries in shoppers’ bags by up to 50% in the short term and 80% in the long term, according to forecasts.
A different system, which automatically packs groceries into boxes for home delivery, could potentially eliminate the need for manual labor in this function and reduce labor costs by 30%.
The tireless robots operate continuously for 20 hours daily, collecting up to 2 million food items per shift, which is significantly more than what a human worker can achieve. With a picking speed of five minutes per order, these robots are five times faster than their human counterparts. Currently, the robots are programmed to pick up boxes of items and take them to human workers, who then place them in shopping bags for delivery. However, the ultimate goal is to automate the entire process.
The robots in question are not humanoid machines, but rather resemble mobile ovens and operate on a grid system. More than half of their parts are 3D printed and they move on a grid like chess pieces. Underneath the surface, each square conceals a stack of up to 21 containers filled with some of the 50,000 products offered by Ocado. These products are stored based on an algorithm that predicts when they will be needed. When a customer places an order, the robots activate and move towards the designated container, passing within five millimeters of each other. While the robots are not autonomous, they are directed by a control system that operates similarly to air traffic control, planning their routes for maximum efficiency.
The implementation of the new technology in warehouses that already use automation would allow workers to be reassigned to different tasks instead of being laid off, since these warehouses are not yet fully operating at maximum capacity. Therefore, there are no immediate plans for massive layoffs. Ocado claims that its system does not require specialized warehouses and can be easily installed for its clients, including Marks & Spencer in the UK and Kroger in the US.