Ocado promises faster deliveries and fewer fires with robot upgrades

Ocado promises faster deliveries and fewer fires with robot upgrades
Ocado promises faster deliveries and fewer fires with robot upgrades

Ocado has vowed to improve its recent record of warehouse fires with a new generation of robots capable of picking and packing more groceries to deliver faster for shoppers.

The online supermarket suffered its second technology-related blaze in three years in 2021, after three robots collided at its depot in Erith, in Kent.

That incident followed a fire in 2019 at Ocado's warehouse in Andover, Hampshire, caused by an electrical fault in the system.

In both cases serious damage caused delays to deliveries and shortages of some goods. Investors raised concerns that Ocado's hopes of selling its warehouse system to a growing number of supermarkets abroad, which have been at the centre of Ocado's rapid growth in recent years, might be threatened.

Chief executive Tim Steiner, who co-founded the FTSE 100 company in 2000, said his new “600 series bot” is safer and weighs 80pc less than its predecessor, which came in at well over 100 kilograms. A warehouse contains hundreds of robots making coordinated movements across a vast grid.

Mr Steiner said: “The weight reduction generally means if two things collide at the same speed, you’ve got less energy, and so, your chances of causing a problem is significantly less.

“And when you’ve got less weight, you’ve got a smaller battery and therefore your heat source is smaller.

“Would these things have had an impact? Yes. Neither the Andover nor the Erith fire would have actually started.”

The company will start using lighter robots, which are able to pick and pack more groceries quicker, and will ultimately remove some manual jobs in its depots.

Ocado has been selling its robotic warehouses to traditional supermarkets across the world to help them serve customers online and compete with Amazon.

It said the the new version will be “easier to build, easier to operate” and “the consumer gets shorter lead times, better range, and overall better proposition and better value too”.

Mr Steiner added that in time, the upgrade could cut labour costs by up to 40pc with less need for manual workers.

He said: “It’s not about making anyone redundant. It’s worth remembering that our clients in many markets are short term constrained by labour availability.

“We are driving productivity, which we’re all supposed to be doing as businesses, to help get the UK more productive, so we can all enjoy a higher living standard.

"And this is what it’s about globally.”

A third Ocado warehouse fire, again at Erith, in 2019, was unrelated to its robotics. The company's UK grocery arm is now a joint venture with Marks & Spencer, while its core business is focused on developing technology and selling it internationally.

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