Retail and robotics company Ocado has unveiled its latest warehouse robot, the 600 Series. Cheaper and lighter than its predecessor, the 500 Series, the newest bot features over 300 parts made with HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology. This represents over half of the total parts in the machine.
Since COVID-19 hit, it seems like just about everything is moving toward Industry 4.0 at an accelerated pace. This means more cloud, more digital, and more automation. In the case of software, everything is being offloaded onto AWS and Microsoft Azure, putting extreme pressure on semiconductor supplies as server production increases. For manufacturing, this has led to increased attention on 3D printing. For both production and warehousing, we’ll see greater attempts to automate, something that Ocado knows a bit about.
Founded in 2000, the Ocado Group participates in a diverse set of activities, such as artificial intelligence for fraud detection. However, it is most known for its work in retail, where it uses an online platform to deliver groceries directly to market companies like Kroger. It also provides direct-to-consumer grocery delivery in the U.K.
Just a year before the pandemic took over the world, Ocado announced plans to use robots to handle all 55,000 products it stocks. Suction-based arms would take care of hard, durable items, while “soft hands” would manage delicate goods, like fruits and vegetables. If you’ve never seen a “robot swarm” process groceries before, the video below will amaze and bewilder you:
The 600 Series is the latest in its attempt to automate warehouses. Using MJF, more than 300 topology optimized parts for the robot were 3D printed. This, in turn, allows the machine to be lighter overall so that it uses less energy and reduces overall costs associated with Ocado’s robot grids for micro-fulfillment centers. For production purposes, the company is weighing the options of locating the HP 3D printers either at a central production plant or at a warehouse where spare parts can be printed on-demand to repair the 600 Series systems.
“Because the 600 Series bots are highly energy-efficient and require a lot less power to achieve the same throughput from the same footprint, new sites will require less chill equipment, lowering energy consumption levels and overall construction costs. The dramatic reduction in material used for our lighter grids not only makes site design easier, it also allows us to install our new technology into simpler buildings, significantly reducing the timelines and costs associated with the construction of purpose-built facilities,” the company said.
In addition to new hardware, the company unveiled new software called Ocado Orbit, which the firm describes as the world’s first virtual distribution center. This concept allows Ocado to avoid the need for regional distribution centers that supply each of its customer fulfillment centers (CFCs).
Smaller warehouses share a virtual distribution center that enable them access to a larger inventory provided by suppliers, thus providing the economies of scale necessary to keep costs down. Every individual warehouse keeps only a portion of stock, shipping products from each warehouse to the next to ensure local customers have the groceries they want.
Think of it distributed storage, as opposed to centralized storage, with the virtual center fulfilling the role of managing all of this product. Machine learning allows the system to improve itself over time, appropriately balancing stock, and according to Ocado, reducing wasted food.
Not only does Ocado’s use of 3D printing present an interesting use case, but its automated fulfillment process seems like one that could apply to our industry and manufacturing as a whole. One could imagine a large 3D printing service bureau using AM-Flow’s technology to shuttle products to a massive grid like Ocado uses, where robots could shuttle around picking them up and bringing them to the appropriate shipping location.
We already know that companies such as Concept Laser have envisioned similar shuttling robots for moving materials and print chambers around a metal 3D printing factory. Seeing Ocado’s bots in action actually makes such an idea seem all the more feasible.
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