U.K. online grocery store Ocado has been at the vanguard of online retail since its founding in the spring 2000. Ocado has no stores, nor has it ever. It operates solely on a warehouse model.
“Ocado’s central focus is technical innovation and efficiency — our whole business is designed around efficient processes,” said Jonty Angel, head of product, OSP, at Ocado.
And with the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) and the newly designed 4G wireless protocol for the robots in its warehouses, Ocado also seeks to replicate its efficiency and innovation for others in the retail space and beyond.
“The Ocado Smart Platform is our internet solution designed to power a retail business, with special focus on groceries,” said Angel. “It allows a retail operation to deliver an end-to-end process for their business.”
The OSP manages everything for online retailers — from when a customer places an order to sorting in the warehouse, and down the supply chain through to delivery completion. The platform is scalable to support enterprise to small and medium-sized businesses.
“What we envision with the platform is to work retailers who are interested in getting better online — taking their online platform to the next level or, for retailers who aren’t really online at the moment, to allow them to go online,” said Angel. “We understand what it takes to get an order from a website and to deliver on that entire chain of processes to allow the order to be delivered to a customer’s house in the desired time slot.”
Angel noted that Ocado has a successful track record of putting businesses online, including one of Britain’s big four in grocery stores, Morrisons. “Before becoming a customer of Ocado, Morrisons didn’t have any online presence. Since they started using our technology, they have become one of the world’s fastest-growing supermarkets for online shopping. In the space of a little over a year.”
In the warehouse solutions portion of the OSP, Ocado has recently developed a scalable 4G wireless protocol for warehouse automation, said Alex Voica, head of technology communications at Ocado.
At first, Ocado shopped around for wireless tech but found that there wasn’t anything on the market suitable for the warehouse space.
“One of the big challenges when we built this robot hive was how to develop a way to communicate with and between these robots in a tough environment,” said Voica. “A warehouse is not like an outdoor stadium. It’s not easy to maneuver in. Warehouses have lots of steel and all sorts of things that diminish wireless performance. So we built our own wireless protocol based on 4G specifications.”
The protocol allows the robots in Ocado’s warehouses to communicate and guarantees a connection 10 times per second to each of the 1,000-plus robots roaming around the warehouse — all working in a 500-foot radius.
“The warehouse model that we’ve developed allows any retailer, as long as they have an empty facility or some space in an existing facility, to build a scalable hive of robots,” said Voica. “You could start with a few robots, however many you want, and then scale up to hundreds and eventually even thousands.”
And the potential applications of the protocol reach well beyond its use in the warehouse space.
“We’re also looking to expand it into additional industrial applications,” said Voica. “Vehicle-to-vehicle communication for smart cars or for air traffic control environments.”
Really, the protocol would be useful anywhere a reduced communications delay between many devices would be beneficial.
And the innovations will keep on coming.
“We’re constantly looking for ways to evolve and innovate the platform,” said Angel. “To design it in a way where we can plug into various other technologies.”