Grocery store Ocado is leveraging IoT and robotics to improve inventory management.
Usually when it’s discovered that hundreds of robots are being built for a single purpose, the perception is that something sinister must be going on. Fortunately, this is Ocado we are dealing with, and as such the aim of its huge IoT project is to transform the retail industry and create the largest automated packaging service of its kind.
Developed with the help of Cambridge Consultants, Ocado Technology has announced that it has put in place new wireless control system. The technology enables Ocado to control and co-ordinate the movements of hundreds of thousands of crates containing millions of grocery items, in real-time and in parallel. It is designed to speed up the bagging process following an online order.
Over 1,000 robots skim along railings above hundreds of thousands of crates containing the 47,000 items Ocado has available for selection. The robots collect the relevant items – taking into account things such as weight and product type – and deposit them with a human packer to place in bags. With so many independent moving parts in such a small area, the task at hand was in many ways similar to that of air traffic control. The robotic shoppers needed to be aware of each other as the picture constantly changes.
Tim Ensor, head of connected devices at Cambridge Consultants, told technology website V3: “We think it’s the most densely packed mobile network in the world with this number of devices in such a small space, all moving around at high speed, and connecting to the backbone so often.”
The solution is a system based on 4G telecoms technology deployed in the 5GHz Wi-Fi band, which best co-ordinates countless fast-moving machines to within a fraction of a second.
Located in a warehouse in Andover, Hampshire, Ocado will hope that its new wireless communication system will come through successful testing and eventually maximise warehouse efficiency.
Ocado and Cambridge Consultants have already started building a similar smart warehouse three times as large in east London, and have plans to take the system to market so that other retailers can purchase and deploy the power of a robotic bagging team.
IoT and automated warehouses
Speaking exclusively with Internet of Business, Paul Clarke, Director of Technology at Ocado suggested a bright future for RCOM, both for Ocado and across the retail sector.
He said that, “the communications technology will be used in all the automated warehouses we build in the foreseeable future, although obviously one day we probably develop an even more advanced solution to replace it. This includes the Ocado warehouses already under construction in the UK and those we will construct for our Ocado Smart Platform customers – the latter being large brick & mortar grocery retailers around the world whom we are in discussion with.”
Asked about the potential applications for this kind of IoT technology outside of retail packaging, Clarke said: “The wireless solution has potential applications in lots of different areas – across IoT, autonomous vehicles and robotics. It could have applications in industries that use dense swarms of vehicles requiring precise choreography with in a controlled space (e.g. airports, mines, quarries and construction sites). It would also be interesting to explore applications in the entertainment sector, for example for theme parks or interactive entertainment events with large crowds.”