Ocado had a hugely ambitious vision to transform their warehouse automation – a vision that required the creation of a communication system that simply didn’t exist.

Ocado came to us to make it happen – quickly and right first time.

A platform for growth

Leading online grocery retailer Ocado ships more than 260,000 orders a week. Realising a huge opportunity to transform its operations and propel future growth, Ocado were ambitious and bold enough to invest in and develop the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP).

OSP includes a new and innovative automation fulfilment solution in the form of a modular robotic grid. This underpins the warehousing and logistics service Ocado provides to its global partners, such as supermarket retailer Morrisons, and is currently being rolled out in all new warehouse installations globally. 

“Working closely with Cambridge Consultants has enabled us to make our ambitious vision a reality. As well as using OSP to power our own business through its next phase of growth, it is available to our partners globally.”
Mark Richardson, Chief Operations Officer

Greatly improved operational efficiency

In a traditional warehouse, boxes travel great distances to be filled by humans. However, in the highly competitive and increasingly online retail industry, warehouses are coming under increased efficiency demands.

In response to this challenge, Ocado radically overhauled it warehousing system with robotics. Roaming the warehouse on a grid above millions of grocery items, Ocado’s robots can assemble a typical 50-item order in five minutes.

World-first communication system

To deliver maximum efficiency, the smart platform needed to control thousands of fast-moving robots simultaneously, each to within a fraction of a second. No existing technology came close.

So, we designed a robust solution combining tried-and-tested building blocks and innovative new technology developed specifically for Ocado.

The end result is a breakthrough in radio design – the most densely packed cellular network in the world. It’s also scalable, with the capacity to handle up to 20 times the number of current movements.

“We could see a way of leapfrogging ourselves to a whole new level. And that required the development of a completely new breed of communication solution. The solution that Cambridge Consultants has created exceeds our expectations.”
Paul Clarke, Chief Technology Officer

Our involvement

Following a thorough review of Ocado’s technology systems, we carried out a fast regulatory, feasibility and de-risking process, using measurements of real environments to build and test our models. This gave Ocado the confidence to pursue their investment.

We operated as an extension of Ocado, collaborating openly to find solutions to each new challenge. As market requirements and Ocado’s own technology platform evolved, we adapted our approach to provide new functionality at low risk and to minimise the integration burden.

Throughout delivery we led all design verification work – guiding manufacturing partner selection, building a robust transfer-to-production ecosystem and providing 24/7 support during the transition. We also led technical seminars, training and knowledge transfer sessions to up-skill Ocado’s team, and we continue to provide ongoing support and maintenance.

“Cambridge Consultants have been very professional and they have deep technical expertise. We found them to be very reassuring and responsive, and at the end of the project they’ve delivered a solution that works exactly how we wanted.”
Mark Richardson, Chief Operations Officer

The challenge

Managing risk to optimise investment

Ocado recognised that, while OSP would give them a clear competitive advantage, fulfilling their vision would require very significant investment and carry considerable risk.

Using our proven processes, our wealth of complex project experience and a methodical systems engineering process, we addressed the biggest risks up-front at relatively low cost. We then planned a modular programme of work with clear boundaries and well-defined interfaces between modules, as well as an effective test and integration plan.

In this way, we were able to limit the knock-on effects of any significant changes to any one module. 

Meeting timescales

Hugely ambitious timescales meant that the design simply had to be right first time.

The custom radio boards, developed in our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, did indeed work first time – a remarkable achievement given their complexity – enabling software integration and key functionality demonstrations at a very early stage.

Following an aggressive de-risking and regulatory programme, the major design, implementation, integration and test tasks were completed and we reached the minimum viable product stage gate in under a year.

Over the next 6-12 months, we added important new features, accelerated the NPI process and hardened the product ready for launch.

Coordinated communication in a noisy radio environment

A very challenging radio environment added a further layer of complexity to the problem of establishing robust, high-speed communication with a high density of users – something no existing technology could provide.

To address this, we built our own mini-warehouse test facility and helped Ocado to create their own staging area, enabling us to run and test many robots, basestations and radios in a realistic setting. We also developed a simple yet powerful user interface to overcome the huge challenge of managing the fleet of robots during commissioning, operations and decommissioning.

Unprecedented regulatory hurdles

Achieving regulatory compliance was another major area of risk. There was no precedent for using the unlicenced 5GHz spectrum in this way and failure to secure regulatory approval had the potential to derail the entire project.

Using our relationship with Ofcom in the UK and the FCC in the US, we worked closely with the regulatory bodies to create new test protocols, demonstrating that our system followed the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

Ultimately, we were complemented by the regulators on our approach, securing approval to operate in the EU, US and Canada.

The team

Tales of the team

Interesting insights from the people who made it happen
“The scale of the challenge was huge: reliable and predictable communication, 10 times a second, with every one of thousands of robots across a huge warehouse.”

Fraser Edwards, radio technical authority
“Ocado is a unique client – ambitious, innovative, nimble – and their hunger for excellence is perfectly aligned with ours. We developed a strong, trusting and collaborative relationship which was critical to the success of the project.”

Tony Price, program manager
“We can receive status messages every time a bot traverses into a new grid cell, which is critical to support real-time control. We don’t believe there’s anything else like this in the world, so far.”

Adam Green, wireless development manager, Ocado
"One of the key early challenges was to quantify the characteristics of the challenging radio environment. We built models of the environment and validated these with real measurements to design a robust radio system."

Amy Stephens, DSP development lead
"The interface to the bots has to be very reliable and pass on as accurate information as possible to avoid expensive collisions and even more expensive downtime."

Jake Turner, bot software lead

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