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Automation is key to Ocado online operations

09 February 2017 - 12:00 by Mike Price

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Online grocery firm Ocado has thrown open the secrets of its distribution process to the media this week, inviting BBC News and other outlets to experience just how integral the use of robotics has become to its daily operations.

Spokesperson, Paul Clarke, explained that without the use of automated machines and artificial intelligence, fulfilling the orders that its customers place online would be impossible.

While human workers are still highly important, a lot of the automation comes into play at a level which is difficult to detect without knowing how technology is being used. Intelligent software solutions monitor goods and ensure that they are sent to the correct places throughout the firm’s huge fulfilment centres, orchestrating a complicated and balletic flow of food items.

Furthermore, the use of machine learning algorithms mean that the system gets better at doing this job over time, learning from any mistakes and further driving up efficiency to wring what little profit can be gleaned from operating in the world of safe shopping online.

Ocado is also developing even more advanced robotics which could eventually remove the need for human pickers to be involved in the process. Creating mechanical arms and hands which are able to gently move consumable produce like fruit and vegetables without doing damage is next on the agenda, although there are concerns about the impact that this might have on jobs.

In response to this criticism, Ocado argues that its operations currently result in employment for almost 12,000 people throughout the UK, stating that its growth and success have only been made possible thanks to automation. There are also many who question the extent to which automation will be adopted in the coming years, with some seeing humans and robots working together rather than fighting for the same roles.