An interview with Alexandru Voica: the last mile of automation

Alexandru Voica is technology communications manager at Ocado Technology. What follows is an interview with Alexandru for our book, The Conversation Engine.

We are in the middle of the forth industrial revolution, where businesses are taking advantage of ever-improving interconnectivity and smart systems to improve efficiency and productivity.

Industry 4.0 brings together artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, the cloud and the internet of things (IoT) into a single smart hub. This is no futuristic vision. Industry 4.0 is already happening, and the benefits are clear to see for both employers and employees.

A look at the numbers

In the 2017 annual manufacturing report, respondents reported spending an average of £106,000 on connectivity investments over the previous twelve months.

Of these investors, 32 per cent anticipated spending more on factory connectivity in the next twelve months. Importantly, when asked about the benefits of this connectivity, 80 per cent cited increased production and output, whereas just 24 per cent referred to reduced staffing costs.

Why we need automation

Ocado has 600,000 active customers, 50,000 different products and receives 260,000 weekly grocery orders*.

To put this into perspective, our first generation warehouses handle anywhere between 1.5 and 2 million items a day across multiple temperature regimes. This simply wouldn’t be possible without industrial automation.

Combining automation and robotics, big data and AI, the cloud, and IoT has given us the ability to do some really exciting things in our warehouses. As keeping customers happy is the focus of business, we refer to our warehouses as customer fulfilment centres (CFCs). Any improvements we make are implemented to benefit our customer proposition.

First-gen CFCs

Our first generation CFCs use a traditional conveyor system, with a production line of more than 20 kilometres. Crates containing the customers’ orders go on a long journey around the facility, with items dispensed into the box along the 20 kilometres line until the order is complete. Up to 8000 boxes can be on this journey at one time.

You can think of this approach as being similar to the assembly of a car: it’s processed piece by piece — or item by item. This facility may be stuffed full of machine learning and algorithms, but we thought we could go one step further.

The next level

Our second generation CFC in Andover takes this automation to the next level. Instead of relying on a sequential production line, we’re using the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) swarm robotics grid where we have tens of thousands of robots working in parallel, collecting items from a grid and taking them to a personal shopper.

This personal shopper could be a human or robot. They collect the entire requisition, in the correct order, without having to take on a 20km voyage around the warehouse.

Not only is this more time and space efficient than the first generation approach, it is also more scalable. Adding additional conveyors to our older CFCs would be a complex process, but adding robots to our newer CFCs is far less complicated.

A positive impact

The most palpable advantage is the speed at which an order can be completed. An average order of fifty items would normally take 2 to 3 hours to process on a conveyor system, but now takes only fifteen minutes in OSP CFC. This movement has been truly remarkable for our business, employees and customers alike.

Using AI throughout the entire process gives us access to important information. Analysing historical data on ordering trends helps us to accurately forecast seasonal demand and order stock accordingly.

Also, with precise monitoring of the shelf life of all our products, we can circulate stock more effectively and reduce waste. Equally, we can combine deliveries into fewer trips, which has positive environmental implications.

The human touch

We started using basic levels of automation 17 years ago. As we’ve gone on to add more complex automation, the company has also grown to over 12,000 employees*.

Technology and humans clearly go hand in hand. Automation is not about replacing humans, but freeing up humans to work on more complex tasks.

We have many examples where it makes more sense for a human, or a human helped by a robot, to carry out a certain task. Sometimes customers order specific cuts of meat or specific fish preparation, requiring expert attention. This customisation is completed by our team of butchers and fish preparation specialists rather than a robot. We only automate where it makes sense to.

Similarly, our customers respond well to our delivery drivers who have all had full customer service training. If we automated this process, then we would lose those valuable moments with our customers.

Automation isn’t one size fits all, and shouldn’t be implemented just for the sake of it. It needs to make good business sense for all stakeholders.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, we believe in giving humans the tools, through innovation and technology, to improve their efficiency and work enjoyment. If our employees feel empowered and valued, their customer service is improved, which makes our customers happier, who then go on to buy more products. It’s a complete circle.

To us, humans are, and always will be, an essential part of our automation journey.

NB: This interview is only an extract from The Conversation Engine. To read the full book, download a free copy here:

* Data based on FY 2017 half year results