Watch the robots doing their jobs at an Ocado supermarket warehouse, and you might be reminded of the blocked-out movements of old-school video game characters. Think “Frogger” or “Pac-Man,” but at more frenzied speeds.
And yet there’s nothing old-school about online grocer Ocado, one of the first supermarkets worldwide to optimize robots — à la Amazon — to retrieve and assemble merchandise from shelves to expedite customer orders. Thanks to highly efficient computer chips, algorithms, sensors and actuators, the battery-operated robots can travel at up to 4 meters per second, lift up to 10 kg at once and assemble up to 50 grocery items in just a few minutes. At Ocado, that means they’re capable of filling 65,000 orders per week through use of a 4G wireless network similar to those used for cell phones.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled
These systems are jumping the pond to American supermarkets pretty soon. Last month, UK-based Ocado committed to working with Ohio-based Kroger to help build three similarly automated warehouses in the U.S. with perhaps 20 more in the coming years, according to VOA News.
“This will speed up Kroger’s deliveries and possibly propel them into the big time,” investment commentator Gary White told VOA.
White also noted that Ocado has struggled to turn a profit over the past decade. But if the methodology can be made cost-efficient at other major grocers, it’s slated to sharply reduce human warehouse labor – even as e-commerce continues to boom. The retail giant Amazon, of course, has been optimizing robots for automated pick-and-package for years and started same-day grocery service Amazon Fresh about five years ago.
“Robots do not require vacation time, sick days, paid leave, lunch breaks or health insurance,” notes Amit Bhaiya, CEO and Co-Founder at DotcomWeavers. “Since retailers are looking for new ways to reduce both operations and logistics costs and delivery time, robots offer an attractive, cost-saving alternative to traditional human labor. [But] the prospect of losing jobs to automatons also has labor unions and employee groups up in arms.”
Bhaiya places the average cost of a warehouse robot at $35,000, but points to research indicating that such technology will help reduce fulfillment costs for North American retailers by some $450 million to $900 million.
Get Ready to Robotize
Supermarkets choosing the competitive advantage of robotic product pickers can be proactive now by making the switch to standard-sized Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs) – which are inherently durable enough to withstand mechanical forces – for product transport. The more automated the picking process, the more important it is for machines to easily recognize the exact dimensions of each shipping container and control shipping costs by ensuring it’s fully packed. Further, because the human touch is eliminated from the packing process, the containers must be able to withstand repeated handling from powerful mechanical systems.
That’s where RPCs really shine. Sized to reflect the most common needs of the grocery industry, Tosca RPCs are strong enough to be packed, shipped, stocked, washed and returned – more than 100 times. They safely deliver more than 40-50 pounds of product per trip and cover more than 100,000 miles before being recycled into the next generation of reusables. Their well-engineered design optimizes handling and ventilation, in addition to withstanding moisture – minimizing product shrink. Additionally, RPCs are unique in their ability to serve as merchandising displays without the need for unloading – offering even more in labor savings.
For those reasons and many others, major players that compete heavily with Amazon are already optimizing RPCs for food transport.
To learn more about how reusables create more efficient supply chains, click here.