Ocado is testing a robot hand that can pick and pack fruit and vegetables in a move that could reduce its reliance on thousands of warehouse workers.
The online grocery retailer has been working in partnership with academic institutions in Germany, Italy and Austria as well as Disney Research – a Zurich-based lab that is part of the US entertainment group behind Mickey Mouse and Frozen.
Ocado currently employs about 4,000 people at its warehouses, and grocery picking is a key part of their job as handling of easily damageable and unpredictably shaped objects such as fruits, vegetables or eggs is difficult to mechanise. The latest development will fuel fears about jobs being replaced by technology.
Automated warehouses have been in use for decades and Ocado, which delivers groceries for Waitrose and Morrisons, already uses a variety of robots in its operations. Even the movement of the people working in its warehouses is guided by technology to ensure they work efficiently. But the variation in shape and fragile nature of fruit and vegetables mean that historically they have been susceptible to damaging or bruising when handled by robots.
So far, Ocado has tested two different robotic hands: the RBO Hand 2 developed by the Technische Universität in Berlin; and the LBR iiwa14, an “intelligent industrial work assistant” designed by German robotics firm Kuka to work closely with humans for “greater cost-effectiveness and utmost efficiency”.
It is also helping to develop a humanoid robot, SecondHands, which uses machine learning to provides assistance to human technicians carrying out warehouse maintenance tasks.
Ocado has been investing heavily in technology as it tries to improve the efficiency of its operations and increase profits. It currently has 50 innovations seeking a patent and took on more than 200 extra tech experts last year, taking its total to 950 on top of 200 qualified engineers. This year it expects to hire another 100 IT and engineering professionals as it opens two new warehouses and hopes to attract an international retail partner to use its software and technology.
Duncan Tatton-Brown, Ocado’s finance director, said the company was looking at using robot hands “over time” but there was no deadline for their introduction. He said the new warehouses would be automated but would “still need lots of people”.
“We are not only creating more operational jobs but creating a lot more jobs for software and hardware engineers. We are inventing and patenting things which is good news. We are creating innovations in the UK and we would argue we are a market leader in the world,” Tatton-Brown said.
The company, founded by three former Goldman Sachs bankers in 2000, delivered its first profit in February after 15 years of investment in technology and warehouse systems.
On Tuesday, the company reported a 22% rise in pre-tax profits to £14.5m, before £2.4m of exceptional items mostly related to the company moving its head office. Sales rose 13.6% to £1.3bn as a rise in customer numbers offset a fall in the average order size as Ocado was forced to cut prices amid heavy competition in the grocery market as major players such as Tesco try to fight off the fast-growing discounters Aldi and Lidl.