Ocado, online groceries delivery service in the UK, some time ago pivoted into providing automation solutions for other retailers. They have a division, or separate company, called Ocado Technology, which offers other retailers systems for fulfilment centre automation: “Ocado Smart Platform” [buzzwords ahoy!]. So, while the above video is interesting, insofar as it demonstrates yet another not-exactly-hospitable factory-like code/space, what is perhaps more interesting is that this system seems to have been developed not only to fulfil Ocado orders in Wiltshire/Hampshire but also as an advert for what Ocado technology does. See this report from Reuters: Ocado’s robot army courts global food retailers.
Ocado have promoted previous automated systems through videos too. The same claims about ‘machine learning’ and so on were made about a fulfilment centre system that looks a lot more like an airport baggage sorting system around five years ago.
I’ve become mildly obsessed with these videos of automated factories and fulfilment centres – they have become a sort of genre unto themselves. There are clearly ways in which promotional videos–made by the equipment/tech firms responsible for creating the systems or the firm implementing them–get translated into video news stories. Likewise, there are ways of talking about the ‘robot’ nature of these things. All of this demonstrates our ongoing negotiation of norms of understanding, describing and rationalising the technology, it’s implementation and what it may or may not portend for work and so on. If you’ve read this blog in the last year you may remember I talk about this stuff as the formation/formalisation of an ‘automative imagination‘.
As a sort of throw-away aside – the displacement of labour involved by Ocado’s, and others’, systems of automation may well be important too. If you ramp up the capacity to ‘fulfil’ orders in the distribution centre then you need to expand the capacity to get them delivered. We don’t have driverless vehicles on our roads, yet, so this possibly means fewer pickers and packers and a lot more delivery drivers.