Lights out: How supermarket retailer Ocado is driving progress in automation

Doug Killick

The Rise of Dark Warehouses: Automation’s Evolution

Thanks to rapid advancements in automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence, dark warehouses will one day operate entirely without light and human presence. And the technology is coming to a warehouse near you soon.

Balancing Human and Machine in Dark Warehouses

In these futuristic facilities, robots can work independently to keep assembly lines running 24/7. These so-called “dark warehouses” require minimal human supervision and lighting for robots guided by sensors and software working around the clock.

The path towards near-total automation and dark facilities will be gradual as warehouses balance optimal human and machine roles. But as technology advances, the trend seems inevitable. The big open question is what roles humans will retain in the increasingly automated warehouses of the future.

Ocado’s Automation Journey: Driving Progress

Online grocer specialist Ocado has pioneered several human-free warehouses utilizing fleets of robots that nimbly transport storage bins around grid systems, eliminating old-fashioned human-accessible aisles.

Last year, Ocado announced the acquisition of materials-handling robotics start-up Myrmex for approximately €10.2 million to speed up the development of intelligent asset-handling systems for the Ocado Smart Platform. Ocado had previously obtained a minority stake in Myrmex and appointed them to design an Automated Frameload solution for loading customer orders for shipping.

In Ocado warehouses, bots collect products from a 3D grid using advanced AI routing. A 50-item order is compiled in minutes and then packed, usually by employees but sometimes by robots with suction grippers.

Resembling washing machines on wheels, Ocado’s bots glide atop a massive grid resembling a giant chessboard. Underneath the grid surface, each square conceals stacks reaching 21 containers deep containing some of the 50,000 grocery products offered by Ocado, strategically organized by predictive algorithms for timely retrieval.

When a customer order enters the warehouse system, bots rapidly mobilize and navigate towards the required containers, adeptly swerving within five millimetres of their robot neighbours. The bots operate in perfect coordination to accurately locate and collect products for delivery.

“We basically play chicken with them: they go on a collision course only to divert at the last moment,” Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado Technology, told CNN.

The Role of Digital Twins in Warehouse Optimisation

So, Ocado is powering ahead with advanced robotics. In the future, meanwhile, dark warehouses will be powered by sophisticated automation systems, working together to enable unprecedented speed and efficiency. Implementing these complex technologies into legacy warehouse environments can seem daunting. How can operators upgrade their facilities without significant downtime or disruption to operations?

Leveraging Digital Twin Technology

Digital twin technology is an integral part of the answer to this crucial question. Digital twins are virtual representations of physical systems that allow companies to simulate real-world conditions and test endless configurations in a risk-free virtual environment.

The global digital twin market is exploding as part of the rise of Industry 4.0, expected to reach $337 billion by 2028, VentureBeat reported. For the warehouse industry, the appeal is clear. Digital twins enable the modelling of intricate warehouse layouts, material flows, and robotic systems to optimise every aspect of operations.

New automation can be thoroughly evaluated for ROI before deployment. Disruptive reconfigurations can be done virtually, saving costly downtime. Operators can pinpoint potential bottlenecks or inefficiencies and address them proactively, maintaining the competitive edge of a high-velocity operation.

Embracing the Future: Dark Warehouses and Beyond

While such fully-fledged automation is still years away, the rise of dark warehouses powered by integrated automation is inevitable. They promise to overcome unpredictable market forces through 24/7 productivity without reliance on human presence.

With Ocado leading the pack on automation, and dark warehouses on the way, retail supply chains are being transformed – with more exciting developments to come.