Online-only grocer Ocado was forced to cancel some customers’ orders last week following a fire at its London warehouse. This marks the second fire Ocado has experienced at one of its warehouses; this time, a three-robot collision is to blame.
The company announced via Twitter Friday that it would be canceling some orders due to a “major incident.” Soon after, the company released a statement disclosing that a fire had erupted at its Erith Customer Fulfillment Centre following the collision of three robots on Ocado’s automated grid. Thankfully, no employees were hurt.
East of London, Ocado’s Erith CFC houses the company’s largest robotic grocery fulfillment grid. A 2018 feature from The Verge describes the AI-powered grid as a “huge chessboard, populated entirely by robots” each about the size of a washing machine. The robots perform basic tasks like lifting, sorting, and moving groceries and bringing them to human “pickers,” who stand on the sidelines and pack individual customers’ orders. Despite (or perhaps because of) the robots’ simplicity, they’re able to fulfill approximately anywhere from 65,000 to 150,000 orders each week. They’re even able to self-diagnose when they experience a bug and take themselves to “the pits” for a fix if the issue is severe enough.
Ocado’s technology, however, requires its robots to run on extremely thin margins—literally. Due to the construction of the grid, robots may pass within 2 inches (5 millimeters) of each other as they buzz by to fulfill their respective orders. This is where last week’s fire appears to have found its origin; when three of the robots crashed, they burst into flames, resulting in an evacuation of over 800 employees and a fall in the company’s share price by about 3 percent.
“The damage was limited to a small section of less than 1 percent of the grid having been successfully contained by our fire attenuation measures, many of which were implemented following our thorough fire safety review in 2019,” Ocado said in a statement. “While the incident has caused some short-term disruption to operations, the vast majority of customer orders are being fulfilled in other parts of the Ocado network.” The company promised via Twitter to contact customers whose orders would be impacted as soon as possible.
Ocado implemented those thorough safety measures in 2019 after its Andover warehouse burned down that same year. The company has since revealed the fire was started by an electrical failure in which the building’s sprinkler system was disabled.