The e-commerce market has been the growth engine of the retail environment, experiencing a 15% increase for grocery sales in 2015. One of the major challenges facing retailers is the ability to keep up with the fast growing demand coming from the online channels. This creates additional pressure on retail warehouses to find more qualified staff, whether for picking and delivering orders or for maintaining and expanding the existing warehousing infrastructure in a scalable way.

However, a recent GOV.UK survey showed that a growing number of jobs are being left unfilled because companies can’t find the right people with the appropriate skills. In addition, UK productivity on the whole has flatlined since 2008, a concerning trend given how other countries have dramatically improved theirs.

One solution to the challenges presented above is the adoption of robots working alongside human workers inside the warehouse to boost productivity, satisfy customer demand for fast delivery times, and reduce picking times. In the UK, Ocado has been a pioneer in the use of robotics and automation alongside its human workforce.

SecondHands

We are a net employer of 11,000 staff, but also create advanced hardware systems that help us maintain a very efficient operation. This in turn enables us to provide additional jobs and other employment opportunities, none of which would be possible without the technology we’ve developed.

SecondHands and SoMa

Ocado Technology has been one of the first companies to realize the positive impact of advanced robotics in the e-commerce market. In addition to creating a hive system for our Ocado Smart Platform, we’ve also partnered with several universities on two robotics-related projects funded by the European Union: SecondHands and SoMa.

The SecondHands project is interesting not only from the perspective of what we will learn along the way, but also because we plan to build many highly automated CFCs worldwide (for Ocado and its OSP customers). Therefore, the SecondHands robots would help us maintain the CFCs, and ultimately help automate their construction too.

While SecondHands focuses on designing a robot assistant for industrial maintenance tasks, SoMa is exploring the utility of strategies that embody a soft manipulation approach. Typically this entails using a robotic hand that exhibits controllable compliant (i.e. spring-like) behaviour.

Given that Ocado offers over 48,000 different items on our store that vary in size, shape, weight and span from rigid to highly deformable, the SoMa robotics teams must solve many unique challenges in addition to the classical robotic manipulator problems.

Image of a robotic arm

Recently, the team has been working on a benchmark framework for the evaluation of soft manipulation systems used for commercial purposes. The framework takes into account several key attributes and assumptions, including the asymmetric and deformable nature of the item to be picked and the damage-free handling of the product or packaging.

Performance-wise, a successful grasp in the Ocado use case refers to robustness (i.e. a secure and reliable grasp), a low level of damage or bruising observed, and a short pick-and-place cycle time.

The benchmark framework was recently presented at a workshop (part of the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems held in South Korea) to a large audience of robotics experts from around the world.

Image of robot grasping oranges

The presentation was titled “Systematic evaluation of compliant under-actuated soft manipulators in an industrial context – the Ocado use case” and included a description of the software and hardware setup being used to test several hypotheses concerning the efficacy of various pre- and post-grasping strategies employed with robot hands that are consistent with the soft manipulation paradigm.

If you’d like to know more about SoMa, visit the project’s website and follow the team on Twitter.

Alex Voica, Technology Communications Manager

October 26th, 2016

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Chris Brett

My team researches, implements and analyses new automation mechanisms. We sit within the Simulation and Visualisation area and our focus is mainly on the company’s huge CFCs (Customer Fulfilment Centres – warehouses).

Essentially, we create simulations that we then use as sandboxes to test out different control algorithms.

This could be anything from really innovative new ways of automating, involving entirely new hardware that doesn’t even exist yet, to simple tweaks to existing systems. The impact this has on the business makes this really exciting.

In terms of scale, the KPIs produced by our simulations mean big money for the business.

They allow evidence based decisions to be made as to which algorithm to use, or even what to actually construct, based on how well we predict it will perform in production. We can make the company more profitable thanks to reduced hardware requirements, greater maximum throughput, higher reliability and resiliency etc.

The simulations that we create need to be highly true to life, to be confident that an algorithm that performs well in simulation will also perform well in the real world. This means modelling edge cases such as mechanical failures and time deviations, message loss and latency, and incorrect sensor reports.

When developing high level control systems, the simulations also need to be fairly far reaching. It’s not just the mechanics that must be simulated. Other systems – or even people – that interact with the system we’re developing also have to be modelled. Any event that might happen in the real world needs to be considered.

A lot of the problem spaces that we work in are extremely complex, which makes designing and implementing a highly optimal algorithm within that space similarly complex, and a lot of fun. Even if you can design an algorithm that can derive an optimal decision, can you make it run fast enough to keep up?

The research and development nature of our work means that our goals often change rapidly. A new hardware idea may come along that we then simulate, prototype the control of, analyse, and discard based on the results, moving on to the next challenge. Or the bottleneck of some system may be overcome, revealing the next bottleneck that can be optimised. I really enjoy this variety of work. There’s always a new puzzle to solve.

I work with a great team – they’re good fun, really smart, and we learn a lot from each other.

Some are experts in particular areas, but mostly we try to spread the knowledge and skills throughout the team so that everyone gets variety, new challenges, and the chance to work with different people.

If you’d like to join us, we’re currently recruiting for these roles and would love to hear from you:

Senior Java Software Engineer – Simulation

Java Software Engineer (SE2) – Simulation

Chris Brett, Simulation Algorithm Development Team Leader

September 22nd, 2015

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Matt Whelan

My team builds simulations of physical systems. Our work falls into 3 categories: experimental, tactical, and operational.

At the experimental end, we build simulations and design tools for new technologies and warehouse layouts, along with prototype control algorithms.

Tactically, we try out proposed changes to our warehouse topologies in silico and perform ROI analysis. We create and mine large data sets so we can spot and remove risk from our growth strategy.

Operationally, we pipe streams of production data into 3D visualisations, originally developed for playing back simulations, allowing real-time monitoring of our live control systems.

We get to work on some pretty bold conceptual projects because, when working at such a massive scale (last year our operation turned over £1billion), even seemingly small percentage efficiency savings mean serious money to the business.

I read a lot about how the more theoretical aspects of computing – things that interested me in the subject in the first place – aren’t as important in the ‘real world’ of enterprise software development. There are big players in all kinds of industries getting left behind because they shy away from AI, robotics, and large scale automation. I think we’re really lucky that we get to spend our time creating novel path searches, travelling salesman solvers, discrete optimisers and the like, and it gives us an edge over our competitors in a fierce market.

The team is a real mixed bag of interests and hobbies. We have a physics doctor, a swing dancer, and a gaming software expert for starters. One thing we all have in common is that we’re unfazed by scale – an attitude which pervades Ocado Technology – and all looking to be the person with the big idea.

The beauty of the environment we’re in is that we can prove how big that idea is before millions are spent on building it.

If that sounds like a team you want to be a part of, these are the positions we’re recruiting for now:

Full Stack Django/Celery Software Engineer

Java Software Engineer (SE2) – Simulation

Senior Java Software Engineer – Simulation

Matt Whelan, Simulation Research Team Leader

September 16th, 2015

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