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It may look like a nightmare sequence from a science fiction film, but a network of fast-working robots is now hard at work in East London

British grocery giant Ocado is using an army of robots at its 563,000 square foot warehouse in Erith next to the Thames to gather up items for customer orders. 

More than 2,000 robots are working there non-stop for 20 hours a day, each picking up to 2 million food items in a shift – far beyond the capability of a human worker.

The eight-wheeled robots scoot around a giant grid-like structure called the ‘Hive’, so-called for its honeycomb-like holes that contain inventory. 

Powered by an algorithm, the robots pick up crates of items to take to a human to put into shopping bags for delivery. 

The Hive is a grid-like structure where all the products are stored in boxes on the floor. The robots run around on top picking items for customer orders

The Hive is a grid-like structure where all the products are stored in boxes on the floor. The robots run around on top picking items for customer orders

The Hive is a grid-like structure where all the products are stored in boxes on the floor. The robots run around on top picking items for customer orders 

HOW DOES IT WORK? 

The Hive is a grid-like structure where all the products are stored and robots run around on top picking items for customers’ shopping bags.

Boxes of products are stacked on top of one another and the robots know where each item is.

An algorithm tells the robot which box to take and it transports it to a picking station where a human puts items into plastic shopping bags. 

More than 2,000 robots work non-stop for 20 hours a day – far beyond the capability of any human worker.  

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Although humans are still involved in the process, the robot army replaces hundreds of human staff who would otherwise be walking around the vast fulfilment centre in search of the items on order. 

Channel 4 has been granted access to the fulfilment centre for an episode of ‘Food Unwrapped’, airing tonight (Monday, May 2) at 8pm. 

Food Unwrapped presenter Kate Quilton said: ‘This is the changing face of the supermarket. I feel like we have whipped away to some crazy game of cosmic dodgems.’ 

According to James Matthews, CEO of Ocado Technology, the single warehouse is the equivalent of 35 supermarkets under one roof.

At capacity, the bots can pick an order in five minutes, which is around five times faster than a trained human worker. 

‘Between them, they are covering the distance of four and half times the circumference of the earth every day,’ Matthews said.   

The Hive is a network of boxes where all of Ocado’s products are stored – around 50,000 items on offer in total. 

Each box is at the top of an individual stack, which is pushed upwards once the box at the top is emptied. 

Ocado is using its army of robots at its 563,000 square foot warehouse in Erith, east London

Ocado is using its army of robots at its 563,000 square foot warehouse in Erith, east London

Ocado is using its army of robots at its 563,000 square foot warehouse in Erith, east London 

It may look like a nightmare sequence from a science fiction film, but a network of fast-working robots is now hard at work just east of London

It may look like a nightmare sequence from a science fiction film, but a network of fast-working robots is now hard at work just east of London

It may look like a nightmare sequence from a science fiction film, but a network of fast-working robots is now hard at work just east of London

The algorithm tells the robot which box to pick up and transport to a picking station, where a computer screen tells a human worker to scan the item and how many to put in each shopping bag.

‘We have an algorithm which works out what products need to go together in each bag so we don’t have products which break each other,’ Matthews said. 

The Hive is part of a focus on ‘game-changing technology’ to help Ocado meet customer demand, which has spiked since the Covid pandemic.

In the 12 months up to November 2021, Ocado Retail sales increased by 4.6 per cent to £2.3 billion from 2020. Sales were up by 41.5 per cent in the two years since 2019. 

For example, Ocado’s ‘on-grid robotic pick’ uses suction power to pick and pack items directly from the Hive. 

Suction provides a better alternative to robotic claws, for example, which would be more likely to damage fragile grocery items. 

WILL YOUR JOB BE TAKEN BY A ROBOT? PHYSICAL JOBS ARE AT THE GREATEST RISK

Physical jobs in predictable environments, including machine-operators and fast-food workers, are the most likely to be replaced by robots.

Management consultancy firm McKinsey, based in New York, focused on the amount of jobs that would be lost to automation, and what professions were most at risk.

The report said collecting and processing data are two other categories of activities that increasingly can be done better and faster with machines. 

This could displace large amounts of labour – for instance, in mortgages, paralegal work, accounting, and back-office transaction processing.

Conversely, jobs in unpredictable environments are least are risk.

The report added: ‘Occupations such as gardeners, plumbers, or providers of child- and eldercare – will also generally see less automation by 2030, because they are technically difficult to automate and often command relatively lower wages, which makes automation a less attractive business proposition.’

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Source: Daily Mail

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