Company develops robotic arm for retail, food and beverage industry

Ocado, a British-only supermarket company, is running a trial program with robotic arms in its automated warehouses for the picking and packing of shopping orders, and is hoping to have them replace humans for picking.
By Freddie Roberts February 9, 2017

Ocado, a British-only supermarket company, is running a trial program with robotic arms in its automated warehouses for the picking and packing of shopping orders, and is hoping to have them replace humans for picking. Courtesy: Internet of Business, OcadOcado, a British-only supermarket company, is running a trial program with robotic arms in its automated warehouses for the picking and packing of shopping orders.

The retailer released a video this week showing a soft robotic hand that can pick fruit and vegetables without damaging them, and announced plans to test the technology in more complex scenarios, with different objects, in the coming months.

Currently, Ocado’s human workforce selects fruit and vegetables for customer orders, but in the future, the robotic arm could replace them.

Challenges

The trial is part of a collaborative research project called Soft Manipulation (SoMa), in which Ocado is a participant alongside academic institutions in Germany, Italy, Austria and the Disney Research lab in Zurich.

It is the latest move by Ocado to adopt Internet of Things-based (IoT) technologies to improve efficiency in its warehouses and enhance the shopping experience for its customers.

Ocado revealed last year that it uses more than 1,000 4G connected robots in its automated warehouse in the UK, and the company has been developing a robotic arm since October 2016.

Ocado’s Robotics Research team leader, Graham Deacon, suggested that the handling of easily damaged goods, like fruit and veg, has long been the bane of robotic manipulation.

Ocado trials ‘hand-like gripper’

To avoid any damage, one solution developed by the Technische Universitat Berlin (TUB) is to fit the robotic arm with a compliant, hand-like gripper—the RBO Hand 2—which is inflatable and possesses "spring-like properties".

Ocado trialed TUB’s RBO Hand 2 on a set of artificial fruit stored in an IFCO (International Fruit Container) tray, with some success.

The company found that the prototype hand was able to effectively grasp objects of a variety of shapes without causing damage, and is sufficiently versatile to pick a wide variety of products, including over 48,000 hypermarket items in Ocado’s current range.

The emotional side to shopping

While the technology is still in the trial stage, former head of open innovation at Tesco Labs, Nick Lansley, said that, on the face of it, the ability to speed up the pick rates for online groceries might sound like a good idea, but he stressed that Ocado must not forget that shopping is an emotional decision.

"The picked items need to look clean, fresh and healthy," Lansley said. He mentioned that his previous employer had programmed a big that appeared on the picking screen whenever a personal shopper was picking a fruit and vegetable item that asked the picker whether they would buy it. The picker then had to tap ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, according to Lansley, thereby taking responsibility for their choice of loose items on behalf of their customer.

"That emotional question focused the picker on searching for the best examples, even lifting away pallets to get to the newer produce underneath," Lansley said. "This made a big difference to the perceived quality of fruit and vegetables received by the customers, who trusted us more as a result," he said. "So my question to Ocado is: Will your robot arm be programmed to pick ’emotionally’?"

Freddie Roberts is a reporter for Internet of Business. This article originally appeared on Internet of Business. Internet of Business is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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