An aluminium railway in the sky - engineering like you’ve never seen before
In December 2016, Ocado opened a brand new Customer Fulfilment Centre (CFC) in Andover, Hampshire. This next generation warehouse was designed as part of the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP); a modular, scalable software and hardware platform designed to power all aspects of a grocery e-commerce business.
We took the opportunity, while considering how to offer this complete online retail package, to try something completely original and innovative in terms of product design: incorporating a swarm robotics-based goods-to-person solution. This represents a breakthrough in engineering, enabling Ocado to continue leapfrogging itself and its competitors from a technological point of view.
In recent months, we have given a number of sneak peeks into our robotic grid in Andover. Many people have been hypnotised by the robots swarming across the grid, but what is harder to see is that these are one part of a much bigger system. Below the robots, there is a massive grid. This structure, developed by Ocado Engineering, is pivotal to the Ocado Smart Platform, enabling our robots to run seamlessly across its surface.
Since setting up in 2001, Ocado has been building expertise in a range of engineering disciplines. We chose to take this direction because we found that many solutions on the market were not optimised for the unique requirements of grocery retail. As the company has developed, the engineering team has always sought ways to improve and revolutionize our end-to-end offering by employing new electro-mechanical systems and structures. When the Ocado business required the development of the Ocado Smart Platform hardware, we had already ensured we had in-house project management expertise to manage the development and build of the product in conjunction with key external partners. A few years on from this requirement, Ocado Engineering’s Product Development team is now made up of around fifty talented engineers who deliver new products and systems to support the capacity growth of Ocado and its Ocado Solutions partners.
The Technical Lead team, a subset of Product Development, is tasked with pushing the boundaries of engineering; for the grid, this means identifying and employing the expertise that can achieve sub-millimeter manufacturing and install tolerances - the nature of which becomes even more impressive when you realise the scale of this enormous structure.
Each grid is the size of four football pitches, two storeys high and uses more steel than the Wembley arch and enough aluminium to make 70 million drinks cans. It is so large that our robots can travel up to 112 km without retracing their steps. To put that into context, this is further than the distance between London and Northampton.
During the design phase, the Technical Lead team were faced with a number of challenging factors which were in part driven by the high levels of precision required, but also due to the complex interfaces of the structure. The first was around thermal expansion. For precision applications, such as robotics, controlling this expansion over a big area presents a significant challenge. However, once you account for this, you can ensure the robots stop in the correct places on the grid to sub-millimeter accuracy.
The second challenge was accurately predicting the lifecycle and movement of the grid. Our Andover CFC is designed to feature 1,100 robots working simultaneously to pick our customer orders and we needed to correctly predict how much and how often these robots place orders on the grid. We do this by using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to control and simulate the movements of over 1000 robots. By understanding the effects of customer orders, what movements they will induce and what will happen if they are repeatedly applied, we can understand the lifecycle of the grid.
Lastly the Technical Lead must continuously validate the performance of the grid. This means we monitor the structure to understand if it behaves the way it was designed to: how far it moves, what loads and vibrations it experiences - everything must be understood in order to predict how it will interact with the robots in the years to come.
The installation of this enormous grid into our CFCs is handled by the Automation Engineering Site Implementations and Central Automation Engineering and Planning teams, who work closely together to build and coordinate the programs needed to support the delivery of automation solutions. Their most recent challenge has been to install almost six million components that make up the grid at our second OSP CFC in Erith, south east London. When completed, it is projected to be three times the size of Andover, making it the largest automated warehouse for online grocery in the world! This solution is unique - no other company has developed anything of this scale and accuracy anywhere in the world.
At Ocado Engineering we’re committed to developing cutting-edge technology that continues to revolutionize our approach. This can only be achieved by working with excellent people, with high technical capabilities, diverse skill sets and who have a drive to succeed.
Lucy Carr-Archer, Marketing Communications Executive