Online retailer Ocado is trialling new robotics technology for picking and packing of shopping orders in its warehouses.
The EU-funded SoMa (soft manipulation) project is developing robotic hands that can handle fragile objects of various shapes and sizes. The goal is to develop versatile, robust, cost-effective and safe robotic grasping and manipulation capabilities, Ocado said.
“One of the main challenges of robotic manipulation has been the handling of easily damageable and unpredictably shaped objects such as fruit and vegetable groceries,” the company explained. “These products have unique shapes and should be handled in a way that does not cause damage or bruising. To avoid damaging sensitive items, the project uses a compliant gripper (i.e. one that possesses spring-like properties) in conjunction with an industrial robot arm.”
The gripper is expected to be sufficiently versatile to pick a wide variety of products, including Ocado’s current range which includes more than 48,000 items.
Ocado’s warehouses are already highly automated, but the variation in shape and fragile nature of fruit and vegetables mean that they tend to be susceptible to damage or bruising when handled by robots, the Guardian reported. The warehouses currently employ about 4,000 people.
Duncan Tatton-Brown, Ocado’s finance director, stressed that although the company was looking at using robot hands “over time”, its warehouses would “still need lots of people”.
“We are not only creating more operational jobs but creating a lot more jobs for software and hardware engineers,” he added. “We are inventing and patenting things which is good news. We are creating innovations in the UK and we would argue we are a market leader in the world.”