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Domo arigato Mr Ocado: robots hit the warehouse


Online grocer Ocado is pioneering the development of a human-like robot distribution worker, according to eDelivery’s sister publication InternetRetailing.
InternetRetailing editor Chloe Rigby writes that the technology arm of the Ocado ecommerce grocery business, Ocado Technology, is working on the project with four leading European research institutions.

Known as the SecondHands project, their work aims to “meld artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced vision systems to create an autonomous robot that understands what human workers want help with, and what help to offer.”

Handing tools to a human technician, and moving equipment such as ladders, are given as examples of the kinds of assistance robotic staff could give.

The robot is being designed with human collaboration in mind, and will feature an active sensor head, two redundant torque controlled arms, two anthropomorphic hands, a torso that can bend and extend, and a wheeled mobile platform. It will eventually be tested in a purpose-built facility in Hatfield, using what the company describes as “rigorous real-world trials.”

Quoted in InternetRetailing, Dr Graham Deacon, robotics research team leader at Ocado Technology, said: “The ultimate aim is for humans to end up relying on collaborative robots because they have become an active participant in their daily tasks. In essence the SecondHands robot will know what to do, when to do it and how to do it in a manner that a human can depend on.”

The work is expected to take five years to complete, including 72 ‘person years’ of research work. Researchers from University College London, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, La Sapienza University of Rome and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne will work with Ocado Technology on the project.

Any eDelivery readers concerned that robots are about to take over the world, starting first with your job, may find some solace in this video posted by a YouTube user in Russia calling themselves ‘a typical system administrator.’

The eDelivery view

Back in March, at eDelivery Expo (EDX), one of the speakers we were lucky enough to secure was John Munnelly, head of operations at John Lewis Magna Park. The presentation he gave, of how John Lewis continues to be one of the pace-makers in multi-channel retail, touched on the subject of automation. There are two, broad, perspectives where automation is concerned. One being that it’ll turn out to be the only way to survive, and the other that it is an inherently inflexible option, one that will see you invest heavily in equipment that you’ll only get value from one quarter out of four.

Not much in business is that binary; the best appraisals are usually found amid the greyer hues of an argument.

But if there is a reluctance to automation among a significant number in the industry, whether that’s on grounds of inefficient investment or not, it’s unlikely those same people will be overly impressed by the idea of robot warehouse staff. There will, undoubtedly, be a great deal of interest in this initiative from Ocado, however. Whether it hints at the future of warehouse staffing remains to be seen – the cost per robot will likely be considerably higher than the cost per human member of staff for a while.

But at some point that cost will dip to the point where the promise of round-the-clock activity, or the ability to work in hazardous – or just unpleasant – environments will change the viability equation. At that point we can expect to see a significant gap start to open up between those that invested in a robotic future and those that did not.

When that will be, however, is harder to predict.

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