Ocado has created a robotic arm that is able to pick easily damaged groceries such as fruit and vegetables.
The technological breakthrough is set to further increase automation in its warehouses, where the majority of groceries are picked by robots.
Until now, humans have needed to pick fruit and vegetables due to their varying size and need for sensitive handling.
But the new arm, developed by Ocado Technology and Berlin’s Technical University as part of a European Union research programme, will use “flexible rubber materials” and pressurised air to avoid damaging the produce.
The fingers, palm, and thumb of the robotic arm will also sense the size of the produce and adjust their grip accordingly.
The project is still in testing phase, but Ocado hopes the arm can eventually be used to improve efficiency in its Andover warehouse.
The announcement comes after Ocado yesterday recorded a a 21.8% jump in pre-tax profits before exceptional items for the year to 27 November 2016. But the positive results were largely overshadowed by the lack of material update on its long-awaited international expansion efforts, which dominated press coverage.
Ocado said the slow progress was down to potential investors wanting to see its technology in progress, and stressed that its latest, most innovative warehouse in Andover only opened two months ago.
Ocado chief financial officer Duncan Tatton-Brown said the fruit picking arm was an indication of what was to come in terms of efficiency gains. “In our new Andover facility, we can pick a customer’s order in about five minutes, rather than two-and-a-half hours,” he stressed.
And these technological innovations would enable Ocado to compete with players offering increasingly speedy delivery times, he added.
“That ability to pick orders in five minutes will reduce lead times and in the future we will look at other ways of getting the product to the customer in different vehicles, perhaps,” he said.
Tatton-Brown also revealed Ocado was in the process of live testing the Morrisons store picking solution, though it is not yet available to customers. The system is expected to go live at some point this year, but the exact timing of the launch will be down to Morrisons.