Ocado is developing a raft of new warehouse robots to cut costs and increase efficiency, according to a new patent filing.
The system could help the company further reduce the need for human workers inside its vast customer fulfilment centres, where it packages shopping for delivery.
The invention is simple but brilliant: Warehouses have lots of aisles to let workers and vehicles (and robots) travel around inside them. Ocado’s new system thinks those aisles are a waste. It gets rid of the aisles and uses that “extra” space to stack more stuff, while the robots operate on a frame above the stacks.
If Ocado’s patent for a fully automated warehouse is accepted, it could make a heap of cash by selling the rights or licences to other companies that utilise warehouses, not just supermarkets.
is one of Britain’s most exciting tech companies, as it’s racking up massive revenue growth and creating a whole heap of technology that it can hive off and sell on to other businesses should it wish.
Its revenues grew by 20% to nearly £1 billion ($US1.5 billion) in 2014, when it recorded a profit for the first time since it floated on the stock exchange five years ago. Its latest data shows that its group gross sales for the 12 weeks to February 22, soared 19% year-on-year. Ocado also said that average orders per week also rose by 18.1%.
Tech companies file for patents all the time, of course. Only a minority actually come to fruition.
The system and method it proposes in its patent application is suitable for storing multiple product lines in stacks of containers, while using two types of robot to do the finding, heavy lifting, and distribution.
The first robot will be a handling device that is capable of carrying several stacks in a single operation while the second robot moves independently of the first and move laterally to distribute the goods.
“The first and second handling devices can work together to remove a target container quickly and with minimum use of resources,” it says in the application papers.
Here is a diagram:
Why this is a huge deal
Ocado’s patent application noted that “methods of handling containers stacked in rows have been well known for decade.” It continues that the “hoisting mechanisms” for making them work have been so expensive that few companies actually use them. And even then, workers and stacking robots have required access to the mechanisms via aisles between the rows.
The patent proposed by Ocado gets rid of the aisle space and lets the robots store things there, thus increasing the inventory density of each facility. Rather than having robots or humans use aisles between rows of goods, Ocado’s robots will operate from above — thus freeing up aisle space for more stuff.
“In an alternative approach, which offers a significant improvement in storage density, containers are stacked on top of one another and the stacks are arranged in rows. The containers are accessed from above, removing the need for aisles between the rows and allowing more containers to be stored in a given space.”
Take a look at how huge the floor and aisle space is, in this Amazon fulfilment centre in California, which uses Kiva robots move inventory.
By cutting down the need for aisles, it will allow Ocado to use it to store more goods or cut down on warehouse size if it needs to.
“Online retail businesses selling multiple product lines, such as online grocers and supermarkets, require systems that are able to store tens or even hundreds of thousands of different product lines,” says Ocado in the application. “The use of single-product stacks in such cases can be impractical, since a very large floor area would be required to accommodate all of the stacks required.
“Furthermore, it can be desirable only to store small quantities of some items, such as perishables or infrequently-ordered goods, making single-product stacks an inefficient solution.”
The idea could increase the capacity of each of Ocado’s customer fulfillment centres, the company’s storage and operational nerve centres. Right now Ocado has only two CFCs working, with plans to open two more.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.