The U.K.’s biggest online grocer hit a milestone this year: Ocado Group Plc put together an order of 50 items, including produce, meat and dairy, in five minutes. Fulfilling a similar order at one of the company’s older facilities takes an average of about two hours. The secret: a fleet of 1,000 robots that scurry about a warehouse snatching up products and delivering them to human packers.
The breakthrough and ones like it could help propel the grocery business into the modern era. The industry wants to make buying food online as simple and commonplace as purchasing clothes or consumer electronics. But fulfilling fresh food orders quickly, reliably and profitably is devilishly hard. Even Amazon.com Inc., which recently acquired Whole Foods Market, hasn’t cracked the code and recently halted its Amazon Fresh service in several U.S. states.
Ocado, founded 17 years ago in the London exurb of Hatfield, says automation is the only way to handle individualized grocery orders in large volumes. The robots are the latest addition to Ocado’s automation arsenal; the company also sells software and hardware to other retailers.