WITH the help of its fleet of 1,000 robots, online grocer Ocado can now put together a shopping order of 50 items in just five minutes.
The task, which involves locating specific meat, dairy and produce requested by customers, previously took human employees up to two hours to complete.
But the time has been slashed with the aid the fleet of 1,000 robot workers relied on by the UK’s biggest online-only supermarket – which it says are the only way to handle large orders.
The robotic workers move around the top of the company’s warehouse, which is divided into three sections based on storage temperatures, on a grid-system suspended over crates of products.
Travelling at four meters per second, the robots are programmed to locate items within the chilled and ambient temperature sections, before using a hook to grab its crate and deliver it to a human employee who packs it into a box.
Currently, the robots can’t operate within the freezer section, meaning frozen items are still packed manually by one of the facility’s 200 human staff members.
Since being launched by three former Goldman Sachs bankers in 2000, Ocado has increasingly welcomed automation in the process of delivering shopping.
Initially, automated trolleys moved along shelves, stopping for employees to pick out the required items.
A conveyor belt-based system was introduced a few years later, and the online grocer has since continued to invest in and improve its software.
Last year, the innovative robots came into use when its new warehouse opened, in a move which will eventually make the facility as productive as an older one staffed by three times as many employees.
Most other grocers and supermarkets still have people manually completing their online orders, although Ocado predicts they will soon follow suit in relying on robots.
Speaking to Bloomberg, Dan Kara, research director of robotics at ABI Research, said: “Having somebody walking through aisles in a warehouse picking up things one at a time in a cart, it’s sub-optimal.”
Mr Kara explained that robots are “going to be much more functional and much cheaper, and they will become ubiquitous.”
Ocado, which is also responsible for delivering groceries on behalf of Waitrose and Morrisons, still employs thousands of staff to pack boxes, load trucks and deliver food.
However, the company could see its workforce slashed further, as it is reportedly experimenting with autonomous vehicles and drones to make curbside drop-offs.
Similarly, a soft robotic hand is also reportedly being tested for packing.
The process is currently carried out by humans due to the difficulty in relying on robots to pick up fragile and unpredictably-shaped objects like fruit, vegetables and eggs.
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