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Supply Chain News: UK Grocer Ocado Developing Robot to Assist DC Technicians


"SecondHands" Humanoids Meant to Fetch Tools, Move Ladders, Remove Bolts to Make Technician's Job Easier Using AI

Jan. 18, 2018
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Is UK's largest on-line grocer Ocado a merchant or a fulfillment center automation developer?

It seems clear it is a little of both.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

The SecondHands robot is a work in progress, and may or may not work out, but it's another ambitious effort for DC automation from the on-line grocer.

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In late 2017, SCDigest reported on Ocado's development of a new take on the goods-to-picker concept largely developed by Kiva Systems and its orange robots. Kiva was acquired by Amazon in 2012 and for now services only the on-line giant.

The Ocado automation system, which it developed in-house with the help of robot manufacturer Tharsus, works like this: robots, sit atop a rectangular grid, with containers beneath the grid holding the 50,000-plus SKUs Ocado sells. The robots move at four meters a second (about nine miles an hour), controlled by software that knows what items are needed for orders at any given time.

Each robot lowers a hook and the grabs and pulls in a container, then moves across the grid to a location where a stationary human associate stands below. After the robot lowers the container, the work either replenishes the container if it is empty, or selects items from the container for customer orders, before the robot moves on.

With it system, Ocado reached a target in mid-2017, processing an order of 50 items, including produce, meat and dairy, in just five minutes using the new robotic system. Fulfilling a similar order at one of the company's older, mostly manual facilities takes an average of about two hours. (See British On-line Grocer Ocado Develops New Robotic Approach for Goods-to-Picker Automation, which includes a video of the system.)

In addition to the goods-to-picker system, the most recent Ocado fulfillment center also includes a very large mini-load AS/RS type system to store and retrieve totes.

Ocaso hopes to sell all this technology to other companies, and in November, it signed its first big international contract to develop a robotic warehouse for the French supermarket Groupe Casino.

Now, Ocado is developed another robotic system – this one to help DC technicians to maintain the automation.

As reported by the UK's The Guardian newspaper, Ocado's SecondHands robot prototype, which looks sort of like a cousin of Star Wars' C3P0 with a wheeled platform instead of legs, is designed to assist technicians in maintaining and repairing all this automation – giving the technician, Ocado says, literally a second pair of hands to help with the work and make the job easier.

(See More Below)




The aim, Ocado says, is to use artificial intelligence to predict the needs of the technicians and hand them tools - or even move ladders or remove bolts.

The prototype robot (see image below) and its operational software, including speech recognition, were developed at the Institute for Anthropomatics and Robotics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), in southern Germany. Ocado is also working with researchers at University College London, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and Sapienza University in Rome on systems that can recognize and interpret human actions and decide how to help.

Ocado is also working to improve the ability of the robot to grasp items with what look very much like a pair of hands.

Graham Deacon, robotics research team leader at Ocado, said the aim was to develop a robot that could help the technicians without any prompting when possible, creating a "fluid and natural interaction between robot and technician," though the robot will respond to commands from a technician as well.

The SecondHands robot is a work in progress, and may or may not work out, but it's another ambitious effort for DC automation from the on-line grocer.

SCDigest will follow the progress.

What do you think of this Ocado robot to help DC service techs? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below or the link above to send an email.


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