Retail Week visits Ocado’s newest state-of-the-art automated customer fulfilment centre to see how the pureplay grocer is prepared for the Christmas onslaught

Ocado CFC Luton exterior

Ocado’s Luton CFC can process 65,000 orders a week and its catchment serves 6.9 million households

Ocado Retail’s fresh automated customer fulfilment centre (CFC) opened in Luton, Bedfordshire, in September, following the closure of its Hatfield warehouse – the retailer’s first automated CFC, which opened in 2002.

At 346,000 sq ft, the Luton warehouse carries 50,000 SKUs and operates with some of the latest-generation Ocado technology such as 550-series robots, enabling a 50-item order to be picked from the site in just 10 minutes.

Alongside Ocado’s picking robots, Luton is the first of the retailer’s CFCs to be fitted with its proprietary robotic arms – there are 22 in operation with more to be installed over time.

These arms are being used to pick certain items off the warehouse’s central grid and place them in storage totes using suction ends. Ocado said it’s developing gripping hands for the robotic arms that will be able to handle larger and bulkier items.

Ocado Retail chief executive Hannah Gibson says the retailer wants to have 42 arms “in due course” and says the robots should be able to “pick a fair proportion of the range, more than half” – replacing what the retailer calls ‘personal shoppers’ in the picking and packing process.

While personal shoppers are still involved in the packing of ambient and chilled products, Luton also features a fully automated freezer, which means staff no longer have to work in sub-zero temperatures processing frozen food orders.

The new technology means Luton is “incredibly dynamic” compared to older Ocado warehouses, ”which means you can pick in different ways and different orders. It also means we’re going to be picking half a route because the orders were placed the night before and the rest can be made up for same-day delivery,” says Gibson.

Luton Ocado robotic grid

Luton CFC is ‘a test facility’ for the new equipment being developed by Ocado Solutions

Gibson describes the Luton CFC as “a test facility” for the new equipment being developed by the company’s Solutions technology division.

Gibson says Luton will be “twice as efficient as Hatfield was” in terms of processing delivery orders, using half of the energy that the old site did and thereby cutting costs.

It is the retailer’s seventh automated CFC in the UK and is similar in size to its warehouse in Andover, Hampshire. Luton can process 65,000 orders a week and its catchment serves 6.9 million households.

While larger than any of Ocado’s four existing Zoom warehouses, Luton is still smaller than the pureplay retailer’s largest warehouse in Erith.

In the run-up to Christmas, Luton will handle over 6,200 turkeys alone and Gibson says there are no major supply chain snags coming down the line in the same way as there were last year, following an outbreak of avian flu.

She adds: “We’re not expecting any supply issues this year with turkeys. Last year, we had issues around avian flu so that was more challenging. But this year we’re planning as usual. We always make sure that we have some spare because you never know until the last minute, but nothing unusual is expected.

“What we have seen in the run-up to Christmas is some issues on broccoli and cauliflower but we’re expecting that to resolve itself soon.”