Learning about self-disruption – my week at Ocado Technology

In October last year, I spent a week getting a behind-the-scenes look at Ocado Technology’s head office in Hatfield.

I’d just completed an independent research essay looking at the societal effects of workplace automation. Ocado’s online retail service was a prime example, so I felt that I already knew a fair amount about them as a service provider and technology company, as well as the automation industry as a whole.

However, I was surprised by the extent to which technology is used at every point of their operation, and how much more digitally advanced and connected they are than their customers realise.

To take just one element: Ocado Technology develops intelligent systems to automate monotonous tasks and heavy lifting in their Customer Fulfilment Centres (CFCs). The evolution of this disruptive technology, such as systems for picking and packing groceries, reveals a lot about Ocado Technology's fundamentally different approach. This particular process has been technologically developed three times:

  • Over eighteen years ago, the first iteration of this technology entailed a very manual process – employees received totes on a conveyor, then had to locate, collect, and place a requested product from a nearby shelf into the tote in a designated bag.

  • The second iteration, launched more than six years ago, eliminated the need for the employees to locate or reach for items. Two totes, one full of product and one with empty bags for the customer order, are presented simultaneously on separate conveyors. The employee picks the product from the first tote and packs it in the second. The product tote is whisked back into storage and the order tote goes off to the next section.

  • The third solution is completely revolutionary, and is in use at Ocado’s newest CFCs. Imagine a giant chessboard, and under each square, totes are stored in stacks, creating a grid. Bots move across the top of the grid, stop on a square to collect a tote from the stack underneath, then deliver it to picking machines or employees at special stations around the edge. (This technology forms part of the Ocado Smart Platform, used by retailers such as Morrisons).

Bots collect totes stored in stacks beneath the grid

Bots collect totes stored in stacks beneath the grid

This visible development shows not only rapid and evolutionary progression, but Ocado Technology's ongoing journey of self-disruption as they are unafraid to completely start over. It’s this approach which enables constant innovation.

Over the week, I saw countless examples of this disruptive mindset which permeates the entire company. For example, the 10X team works on innovative and experimental projects that push the boundaries of what can be achieved with technology. It’s a theme I discussed with a few of the individuals leading some of Ocado Technology’s exciting projects.

Andreia Silva Cabecinhas is an IT Team Leader and Data Scientist who works on consumer experience and service efficiency. Whilst speaking to her in the aptly named Tim’s Diner, she emphasised the importance of data intelligence and machine learning with regard to demand forecasting. The smart algorithms predict with a huge degree of accuracy precisely how many of each item to order into each warehouse and when, which is vital for balancing the frictionless consumer experience with reduction of waste.

Celine Boudier, at that time Team Lead on the Code for Life initiative, explained how Ocado Technology ideated and developed free games and lesson plans to teach children the basics of programming, after Computer Science was introduced into the English KS1 and KS2 curriculum. The vast array of levels makes their Rapid Router game suitable for all ages. I found it really fun and would definitely recommend giving it a try!

I also loved meeting Paul Clarke, Ocado’s Chief Technology Officer. We discussed the importance of disruption within industries and Ocado Technology’s aspirations and vision. It was interesting to hear his views on collaboration, innovation and self-disruption, all of which are key values at Ocado Technology.

From my week at Ocado, it was clear that some seriously cool stuff is going on there. Not only are the people that I met super intelligent, but above all they are passionate about what they do. It’s their openness to self-disruption that allows them to constantly innovate, and that’s an important lesson I’ll take with me.

Guest post from Ines Dols Wong, student intern