Mark Fryer’s super-efficient picking and packing systems have helped make Ocado the world’s biggest online-only supermarket. His team’s ground-breaking automated model is now being adopted around the world, and has the potential to revolutionise retail. He spills the beans to Furnace in Ocado’s Hatfield customer fulfilment centre – a vast, dimly-lit, noisy, multi-mezzanine shed full of conveyor belts, cranes and some ‘personal shoppers’.

As head of automation engineering at Ocado what do you do? 
MARK FRYER: My team and I develop and prototype the proprietary automation and robotics solutions used in Ocado’s customer fulfilment centres (packing warehouses). The machines are made by external manufacturers including Austrian company Knapp and Tharsus in the UK, then we install them. I took on the role eight years ago, when the team was 10-strong. Now there are 150 of us, and that will keep growing as we do more deals with other supermarket chains. In May, Ocado agreed to build between three and 20 automated warehouses for US grocery giant Kroger. That’s the fourth agreement Ocado has struck in six months – it’s also building one such warehouse each for Groupe Casino of France and Canada’s Sobeys. 

The average Ocado order is around 100 items. In your latest generation of CFCs, an entire order can be picked and packed in just 15 minutes, compared with two-to-three hours at the two older centres. How have you managed to shave off so much time? 
MF: The first CFCs we built at Hatfield, Hertfordshire and Dordon, Warwickshire, have a sequential production line. Yellow and green crates bring products from storage, full of one type of product. These crates travel along the conveyors and stop in front of certain picking points in the warehouse where a packer adds items to a red crate holding a customer’s order. That crate then travels to another picking station for more items to be added. In the existing Andover, Hampshire CFC and in Erith, Kent, which opens later this year, hundreds of robots move fast around a grid above the personal shoppers. The robots work together to bring the right products to one picking point. So instead of the customer crate having to travel for miles on conveyors, everything comes to it in very quick succession. Also, if a robot fails, another can quickly take its place, meaning there’s very little downtime.  

Some of your competitors fulfil online orders from so-called dark stores – warehouses that are laid out like supermarkets, where packers walk up and down aisles collecting items for one order at a time. The Erith warehouse will cost £225m to build (excluding administrative and technology development costs). Why is Ocado investing so heavily in an alternative solution?
MF: For us, it’s all about efficiency and speed. Customers want everything they order to turn up. Our level of control means that pickers very rarely make a mistake, so 98.8% of deliveries are accurate as ordered. And in the last few years, they’ve wanted more immediacy – deliveries arriving quicker. Now, 95% of orders are delivered in a one-hour time slot. 

How much more automated can things get? 
MF: We are working on a number of robot hands and arms for picking, some are experimental while others are very close to getting deployed. One is being trialled in Andover, and that model will be installed in Erith. People in my team are helping with some of that. 

What have you done to retail? 
MF: Our business model has changed the industry and how people shop. We have changed the UK grocery market and now it’s going across the world. I see the benefit of what we’re doing, and that makes Ocado a fascinating place to be. 

On a personal level, I’ve bought into the vision. I sometimes order with Ocado multiple times a week rather than wander around a supermarket. Supermarkets might be in trouble from competition from more experience-based, such as a market or farm shop. I think that’s probably where it’s going. That’s what I do, I go to a market to choose and smell fresh produce. As demographics change, and more generations are used to ordering online, I can only see the trend massively increasing.