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一支机器人部队正在拯救零售商

一支机器人部队正在拯救零售商

Jeremy Kahn 2020年05月04日
平日里,Ocado的机器人分拣仓库已业务繁忙,新冠危机爆发以来简直忙得不可开交。

被工作人员称为“蜂巢”的Ocado分拣中心内,数千台机器人用最快速度和最少人工完成订单。图片来源:COURTESY OF OCADO GROUP

看机器人忙碌工作简直让人着迷。伦敦东郊厄里斯一处仓库里,一千多台机器人在巨大的钢铝网上滚动。每台机器人看起来很像办公室的复印机,顶上有短粗天线,还有个闪亮的霓虹绿色LED屏幕。每台机器人沿着各自的路线疾驰,提速效率堪比法拉利。机器人会瞬间停下,倒退,向左或向右行进,或是暂停片刻让其他机器人通过,宛若精心编排的电动芭蕾舞。

机器人运行的网格实际上是巨大三维网格,也是装满食品的模块化笼子顶部。每次机器人停下,都用爪子状的装置伸进格子内部(员工称之为“蜂巢”),下降多达三层。爪子抓住白色塑料板条箱的侧面,里面装着水果、蔬菜、谷类等多达55000种物品,然后缩回机器人腹部。随后机器人将板条箱运到另一个格子区,放在仓库底层蜂箱下方的“分拣通道”。员工根据顾客订单从板条箱里拿出商品放进红色塑料箱,装上卡车送货。

此类仓库又被物流专业人士称为顾客订单分拣中心(CFC),是全世界最先进和自动化程度最高的仓库之一,每周可以处理数万个订单。此处仓库属于业内领先的英国在线杂货商Ocado,其定位是像白衣骑士一样帮助陷入困境的杂货业在自动化时代展开竞争,也有可能帮助其他行业。

平日里,Ocado的机器人分拣仓库已业务繁忙,新冠危机爆发以来简直忙得不可开交。疫情蔓延也证明,即便人类劳动力面临前所未有的压力,杂货电商业务也能保持蓬勃发展。然而与此同时,危机也颠覆了日常生活,在Ocado有望在全球拓展业务之际可能影响业务增长。

Ocado像大多数杂货店一样,因社交隔离措施和恐慌性购买推动的出现需求飙升。3月该公司在英国的杂货销售额同比增长了20%以上。公司网站的访问量一度达到正常水平的100倍,高到公司的网络安全系统判断网站受到攻击。“这是我们有史以来流量最高峰。”Ocado集团传播总监大卫·施赖弗表示。

Ocado遇到的情况并非孤例。3月19日咨询公司麦肯锡向杂货店客户提供的报告称,全球在线杂货店都面临高达700%的需求高峰。疫情大流行很有可能对消费者行为产生持久影响,危机消退之后很长时间里,都会有更多消费者选择在线购物。各超市要尽可能高效满足新需求,人们对Ocado自动化仓库、机器人和软件的兴趣也会随之提升。

尽管如此,Ocado跟其他同行一样,满足需求也不太顺利。为了应对铺天盖地的订单,Ocado关闭了其移动应用程序,还在网站上增加了排队系统。但需求实在太多,3月中旬Ocado一星期里的送货时间全被预订,被迫临时关闭网站。近一周后重新上线时,原有用户下单都受到限制,然而限制后还是很难及时送货。而且,Ocado跟许多杂货店一样,临时限制每件商品只能买两到三件,以阻止囤货。

Ocado正为其他最坏的情况做准备,主要问题是如果员工开始感染,或是全体团队要隔离该怎么办。(可能的解决办法包括从其他行业抽调休假员工去仓库,或开卡车送货。公司已经开始招收赋闲的Uber司机。)

病毒袭击之前,食品杂货店已承受巨大压力。“由于成本上升、效率下滑还有竞相降价,杂货店业务增长和盈利能力都在走低。”麦肯锡最近一份报告中写道。过去十年,北美和西欧的杂货店销售额增长率仅为2%。与此同时,咨询公司Mercator Advisory Group的数据显示,美国连锁杂货店平均净利润率只有1%至2%。不仅趋势令人沮丧,行业高层也很担心零售业的两大对头亚马逊和沃尔玛,两巨头均已明确表示要主导食品杂货业务。根据瑞银数据,沃尔玛已是美国最大的食品杂货销售商,市场份额为21.3%,比最接近的竞争对手超市连锁店克罗格份额高出一倍以上。

一些业内人士认为,“传统”杂货商与巨头竞争的唯一途径就是学习巨头最先进的技术和物流基础设施。自动化还有助于削减劳动力成本。麦肯锡的另一份2019年5月发布的报告估计,应用现有技术后,杂货店指出的工时可能减少55%至65%。

Ocado对杂货商的宣传强调了各项好处,还补充了令人信服的事实,即Ocado可协助搭建自动化基础设施,节省自行开发的精力和成本。

多年来,Ocado转型技术平台的说法似乎停留在口头上。股票分析师普遍怀疑,该股也是长期以来卖空者的最爱。但Ocado的物流能力逐渐获得了认可。从2017年开始,公司跟四大洲多家食品连锁店达成一系列许可协议,包括跟克罗格达成巨额合作协议。此后,Ocado的市值翻了两番超过100亿美元,每年收入增长约10%,2019年达到22亿美元。对科技公司来说如此慢的增速毫无意义,但对杂货店来说已相当可观。

投资者似乎相信Ocado能抓住当前的机会。2月28日以来,尽管全球市场暴跌,Ocado股价还是上涨了28%。然而,未来看起来有点灰暗。由于Ocado采取许可经营,前期要花巨资建设数十个订单分拣中心。相关债务导致一些分析师怀疑,目前背负逾7.5亿美元债务的Ocado承担的风险是不是太大。而且,即使大流行过去,有个问题也不容忽视,不管是哪家杂货商,即便引进Ocado的机器人帮助,能否挡住什么都卖的亚马逊,还有总部位于本顿维尔的沃尔玛的冲击。

Ocado于互联网繁盛时期创立,当时三位20多岁的英国人蒂姆·施泰纳、乔纳森·法曼和杰森·吉辛在高盛当交易员,投资创业公司亏了钱。2000年4月,三人联合成立了Ocado。(Ocado是个虚构的词,之所以选这个词是因为不属于任何一种语言,而且创始人喜欢这几个字母当标志的样子。)Ocado的首席执行官施泰纳是创始人里唯一留在公司的人。他看起来结实修长,短短的灰色头发,淡蓝色的眼睛,快速介绍Ocado的历史时散发出一种拳击手的气质。

跟强手达成战略伙伴关系有利于公司发展。Ocado发现自身规模很小,很难跟批发商谈到合适的价格,于是与高档英国连锁超市Waitrose签订协议,之后Ocado可参照其合作方式跟供应商交易。作为交换,Ocado同意接下来10年售卖带有Waitrose白色标志的产品(后来协议延长了10年)。Waitrose的百货商店母公司约翰·刘易斯曾投资4500万美元收购其40%的股份。

Ocado创立时,市场上的英国食品连锁店,如Tesco、Sainsbury’s和沃尔玛旗下的Asda电商业务均已上线。各家连锁店利用实体商店完成网上订单,店员选出商品装上送货卡车。该过程被称为“店内分拣”,是多数零售商将电子商务嫁接到现有业务上的方式。店内分拣不用投资额外的资本或劳动力,但存在缺点。很多店的储藏室太狭窄,无法承接大规模分拣操作,员工可能得在超市里根据在线订单选货,影响到店购物的客户体验。由于库存较小,商品也很有可能出现缺货现象,这是导致客户不满的主要原因。

没有实体店的Ocado采取了不同的做法。公司在伦敦北部边缘的哈特菲尔德建立了自动化中央配送中心,接收所有订单,可将库存短缺几率降至最低。这项业务迅速走红,一直在消费者调查中名列前茅。订单中商品替换或错误率均低于0.5%,远高于竞争对手。

英国铁桥,一位Ocado司机正在运送食品。3月英国下令强制居家隔离令后,订单数量激增。图片来源:NICK POTTS—PA IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

问题是:哈特菲尔德应用的技术还有很多需要改进之处。Ocado使用的设备是巨型传送带和分拣机,都是为制造业工厂设计,工厂通常大量制造相同的产品。但这种模式不适合种类繁多的杂货店,而且每位顾客的订单都不一样。“之前我开过物料搬运设备的玩笑,感觉是5加5的投入只能得到7的回报。”施泰纳说。

与此同时,持续支出改善消耗了大量现金。2007年,Ocado的收入为3.38亿美元,每年以超过20%的速度飞速增长。但每年运营损失也超过4500万美元,还要花费数千万美元改进分拣中心,以及购买送货卡车。目前公司债务超过1.3亿美元。约翰·刘易斯已将对Ocado的投资减记为零。

大概这段时间里,管理过科技初创企业的软件顾问保罗·克拉克接到了Ocado招聘人员的电话。“当时我说:‘很抱歉,但我不想做零售业。’” 60岁左右,身材瘦长的克拉克回忆说,虽然没去牛津大学读成博士,但一身学者风范。后来克拉克参观了Ocado的仓库,对其规模和复杂性印象尤为深刻。哈特菲尔德是自动化方面的巨大难题,正是他喜欢解决的工程问题。“我立刻爱上了。”他说。

克拉克签了一年合同,任务是改进哈特菲尔德快速运转的传送带货品流动控制系统。克拉克说,Ocado的操作非常复杂,要重新设计的话,唯一方法就是搭建一系列数字“孪生体”,本质上是对操作的实时软件模拟。如此一来克拉克和团队能在实际仓库中实现配置改进之前进行试验,避免了代价高昂的测试和错误。施泰纳说,不久之后,新系统协助提高了设备效率,现在5加5能做到等于12。

2010年夏天,Ocado在伦敦证交所上市,估值为9.37亿英镑(按照当年汇率约合14亿美元)。在很多分析师预期里,一直赔钱的杂货店并不值这么多,上市首日公司股价下跌了10%。之后Ocado一直饱受怀疑情绪困扰,接下来10年里Ocado的股票经常像是市场上最爱卖空的股票之一,大帮基金经理在一边喝倒彩。

不过接下来的一年里,Ocado实现第一次实现营业利润。大约在同一时间,食品杂货咨询公司、投资银行,后来连宝洁、联合利华、雀巢和可口可乐等巨头也开始低调要求参观分拣中心。斯坦纳的本能反应是拒绝。“当时我们很保密。”他回忆说。但他很快意识到,虽然其他公司参观分拣中心可能会学到一些技巧,但Ocado十多年里搭建集成软件、硬件、仓库工人和送货流程的系统其实无法复制。2012年的年报中,Ocado首次提出将知识产权货币化制定为战略方针。

造访Ocdoad的公司当中也包括英国连锁超市莫里森,其收入远远超过Ocado,但没有电商业务。两家公司达成协议,将Ocado最新分拣中心一半产能出售给莫里森,Ocado还帮莫里森管理设施和送货车队。2014年1月莫里森网店Morrisons.com开业,证明了Ocado的平台可用于其他公司。

当时克拉克已擢升为首席技术官,他对平台的构想更加雄心勃勃。Ocado推出莫里森网店的第二天,克拉克在当地一家酒店召集员工开会。他首先祝贺短短六个月内就让莫里森网站如期投入运营,这是重大的技术成就。但他接下来的话让很多人倒吸一口冷气。“整个技术堆栈要重写。”他告诉员工。刚开始,重写主要意味着软件改进。但到2015年中,Ocado已经开始研发大批机器人,在“蜂巢”里忙碌。

机器人由Ocdoo与英国机器人公司Tharsus共同设计,通过内部4G网络控制,其基站之密集,在全球都无出其右。网络中每台机器人每秒能跟控制软件完成10次通信。厄里斯的蜂巢每天产生4兆兆字节的数据,所有数据都反馈到数字孪生体中以完善系统。

应用机器人后,Ocado最新的分拣中心每工时可拣选200件商品,意味着收到正常订单后,商品从供应卡车运到蜂巢,拣选、包装并装车等待配送,全过程不到15分钟。同时,由于蜂箱的模块化设计,可以很容易地复制和调整大小以适应新位置。

公司还为硬件搭配了诸多新软件,从基于云的移动应用到人工智能均囊括在内。现在Ocado向全世界的杂货店提供集成软件包,以及维护和升级的工程支持服务。

亚马逊和沃尔玛对机器人技术并不陌生,2012年亚马逊以7.75亿美元收购马萨诸塞州Kiva公司后,已开始使用Roomba型机器人,在分拣中心运送大堆货物。去年,亚马逊还收购了科罗拉多州博尔德市的初创公司Canvas,利用该公司的计算机视觉系统,仓库机器人可以在拥挤的环境中跟人类共同工作。沃尔玛则从匹兹堡的Bossa Nova Robotics订购了数千台机器人,用来跟踪门店库存。沃尔玛还在新罕布什尔州试点了全自动化仓库,为用户在线下单线下自提业务提供支持。

单纯做超市业务的公司自动化速度慢得多。但在2017年6月,亚马逊推出的重大举措为Ocado推广现代化销售提供了V型助力。当时,线上百货商店亚马逊斥资137亿美元收购了在全球有500家门店的高档商品商店全食超市(Whole Foods)。杂货商普遍担心亚马逊也会吞掉自己的业务,因为亚马逊在其他行业有过先例,对Ocado技术的兴趣也骤然汹涌。

2017年11月,Ocado宣布与法国零售商Groupe Casino达成协议,为电商业务提供技术。两个月后又与Sobeys达成合作,Sobeys在加拿大经营1500家不同品牌的店面。“这是我见过唯一能实现大规模盈利的电商模式。”Sobeys电商业务高级副总裁莎拉·乔伊斯谈到Ocado时表示。

Ocado测试能处理精致食品和修理的仿真机器人。图片来源:COURTESY OF OCADO GROUP

随后还有几笔交易,包括跟经营1300种杂货的瑞典公司ICA、澳大利亚的Coles还有日本的亚洲最大连锁超市Aeon。但规模最大的还是2018年5月Ocado与克罗格达成的战略合作。根据协议,美国巨头克罗格收购Ocado的5%股份,并获得了在美国独家应用其技术的权利。Ocado则承诺为克罗格建造约20家分拣中心。合伙企业上市当天,Ocado股票飙升了44%。

克罗格的首席执行官罗德尼·麦克马伦表示,观察Ocado长达10年,还跟公司高管定期会面。2013年一次合并后,克罗格电商业务主要采用店内分拣方式,但麦克马伦表示,随着业务规模增长,越发难以完成。为了让线上和店内顾客都能满意,克罗格倾向于Ocado的自动化分拣中心。麦克马伦承认也在密切关注亚马逊和沃尔玛,但他坚称跟Ocado合作跟竞争对手毫无关系。“主要原因是我们一两年内根本不可能追上Ocado的水平。”麦克马伦说。

缺乏资源模仿Ocado的技术,也正是客户跟Ocado合作的常见原因。“我们公司规模很大,但技术并非专攻。”瑞典公司ICA首席执行官安德斯·斯文森说。相比之下,Ocado雇佣了1800多名软件工程师和600多名硬件专家。比起亚马逊或谷歌当然少得多,但在杂货行业里已经是很庞大的技术团队。

面对大批许可经营协议,很多投资者不得不放弃怀疑,Ocado被大量做空的日子也一去不返。“之前我拼命做空,但Ocado跟克罗格合作后,我拼命做多。”股票研究公司伯恩斯坦负责欧洲零售商的分析师布鲁诺·蒙泰恩说。不过,相关交易并未增加太多利润,因为自动分拣中心建设完成后Ocado才能收到回报。

Ocado目前经营六家分拣中心,支持在英国食品杂货店业务,其目标是十年内在全球范围内至少经营50家。3月26日,Ocado在英国之外为法国Groupe Casino建造的第一家分拣中心正式启用。另一家位于多伦多郊外为Sobeys建造的分拣中心将于6月开业。至于为克罗格建设的第一家分拣中心,按照计划2021年上半年将在俄亥俄州门罗县投入使用。

Ocado的合作伙伴收购土地、搭建外部建筑、组建送货车队和雇佣员工。Ocado负责建造蜂箱,提供机器人和软件,还要提供培训和现场工程支持。施泰纳表示,平均算下来每家分拣中心的“现金流出峰值”大概为4000万至4500万美元。建设完成后,Ocado才能根据仓库的可用容量收取费用。最近一个财年里,Ocado只有6%的收入来自许可经营。

苏格兰皇家银行资本市场的股票分析师谢里·马莱克表示,2022年之前Ocado都很难从许可经营业务获得正现金流。与此同时,巨额投资导致损失不断膨胀,2019年初,一家分拣中心又毁于灾难性的大火,导致损失进一步恶化。

迫在眉睫的问题是,冠状病毒会不会阻碍Ocado扩张。疫情第一次爆发时,Ocado就遇到了困难,因为机器人关键零件在中国武汉制造,而武汉正是疫情爆发中心。(此后Ocado找了另一家供货商。)Ocado主要聘请本地工程团队,因此旅行禁令影响较小。在大多数地方,杂货行业和建筑均为必需行业,所以不必停工。今年3月,Ocado的首席财务官邓肯·塔顿·布朗对记者表示,Ocado将坚持完成海外分拣中心建设。不过他也承认,如果限行措施持续数月,时间表将受到拖累。

与此同时,Ocado也不指望疫情相关收入增长能一直持续。大部分销售额增长来自购买干货和不易腐产品的顾客。该公司预测,下半年随着顾客不断清库存,相关商品的需求将低于正常水平。因此,公司并未上调全年销售和盈利预期。

即便在新冠病毒爆发之前,一些观察家就怀疑Ocado与杂货商合作能否有回报。投行Jefferies的食品零售和分销分析师克里斯托弗·曼德维尔特别批评了跟克罗格的合作。他说,除了少数几座大城市,美国的人口密度还不够支持Ocado的分拣中心模式。如果说疫情期间有什么不同,就是证明了“店内拣货”可能更具弹性。如果发生危机导致需求激增,商店可以雇佣员工完成在线订单,而分拣中心的设计是多数时候接近满产能工作,没有那么灵活。

类似疑虑并未影响Ocado筹集资金。2018年公司发行了1.87亿美元的股票。2019年2月,Ocado将50%的英国电商业务出售给英国零售商玛莎百货。对投资者来说,此次出售让Ocado定位更单纯,就是纯粹的技术平台,同时筹集了9.82亿美元。(玛莎百货也成为Ocado新的食品批发合作伙伴;Ocado与Waitrose的长期合同将于2020年底终止。)12月Ocado还出售了6.55亿美元的可转债。

Ocado频繁融资让一些分析师不安。但首席执行官施泰纳表示,融资是实力的象征,而不是弱点。“融资的唯一原因是打算做更多(业务)。”他表示。今年2月,全球最著名的投资者也对Ocado的战略间接投了信任票,沃伦·巴菲特旗下的伯克希尔-哈撒韦公司在提交政府的文件中披露,斥资近5.5亿美元收购了克罗格2.3%的股权。

虽然Ocado在全球范围内率先推出机器分拣中心,但首席技术官克拉克正关注下一个技术转折点。他测试了新款机器人,包括装有类似人手装置的机器人,今后可以完全代替人类拣货。他在研究不损坏水果之类易碎物品的捡取方法。Ocado还测试了叫“第二手”的机器人,此类机器人能用轮子行走,但有仿人类的躯干、头部和手臂,可以修理蜂箱和传送带。克拉克说,最终“目标是设备内完全黑暗”,也就是说分拣中心几乎没有人类参与。

机器人并不是克拉克唯一关心的事。在“垂直”农业领域也就是可持续农业的室内试验方面,Ocado进行了多项投资。公司收购了欧洲最大垂直农业公司Jones Foods的多数股权,投资成立了名叫Infinite Acres的合资企业,以及一家名为80 Acres Urban Agriculture的美国初创企业,还有荷兰Priva Holdings公司。另一项投资是英国初创企业Karakuri,该公司创建了自动厨房,可准备好餐厅级别饭菜然后送货。克拉克说,Ocado设想是构建“整合食品机器”。他解释说,通过垂直耕作、准备食品和同一设施内配送,“可实现从农场到餐桌两个小时或更短的时间内完成。”

施泰纳和克拉克也开始看食品之外的领域,寻找利润丰厚的业务。Ocado在物流、人工智能、机器人技术和仿真方面的专长可应用于自动停车场、包裹分拣、行李搬运、铁路货运、集装箱港口和模块化、可配置建筑等。克拉克说,公司已经在相关领域申请了多项专利。克拉克表示,Ocado研发了模拟停车系统,而且开始探索扩大版机器人,以处理比一箱香蕉重得多的货物。

由于Ocado核心的食品杂货业务仍在努力证明可持续性,向其他领域拓展听起来有点压力。不过,如果想知道Ocado为什么想做停车场或港口运营业务,施泰纳有个现成的答案:如果当初亚马逊只卖书,现在会怎样?(财富中文网)

本文另一版本登载于《财富》杂志2020年5月刊,标题为《新冠疫情前线上的杂货机器人》。

译者:Feb

看机器人忙碌工作简直让人着迷。伦敦东郊厄里斯一处仓库里,一千多台机器人在巨大的钢铝网上滚动。每台机器人看起来很像办公室的复印机,顶上有短粗天线,还有个闪亮的霓虹绿色LED屏幕。每台机器人沿着各自的路线疾驰,提速效率堪比法拉利。机器人会瞬间停下,倒退,向左或向右行进,或是暂停片刻让其他机器人通过,宛若精心编排的电动芭蕾舞。

机器人运行的网格实际上是巨大三维网格,也是装满食品的模块化笼子顶部。每次机器人停下,都用爪子状的装置伸进格子内部(员工称之为“蜂巢”),下降多达三层。爪子抓住白色塑料板条箱的侧面,里面装着水果、蔬菜、谷类等多达55000种物品,然后缩回机器人腹部。随后机器人将板条箱运到另一个格子区,放在仓库底层蜂箱下方的“分拣通道”。员工根据顾客订单从板条箱里拿出商品放进红色塑料箱,装上卡车送货。

此类仓库又被物流专业人士称为顾客订单分拣中心(CFC),是全世界最先进和自动化程度最高的仓库之一,每周可以处理数万个订单。此处仓库属于业内领先的英国在线杂货商Ocado,其定位是像白衣骑士一样帮助陷入困境的杂货业在自动化时代展开竞争,也有可能帮助其他行业。

平日里,Ocado的机器人分拣仓库已业务繁忙,新冠危机爆发以来简直忙得不可开交。疫情蔓延也证明,即便人类劳动力面临前所未有的压力,杂货电商业务也能保持蓬勃发展。然而与此同时,危机也颠覆了日常生活,在Ocado有望在全球拓展业务之际可能影响业务增长。

Ocado像大多数杂货店一样,因社交隔离措施和恐慌性购买推动的出现需求飙升。3月该公司在英国的杂货销售额同比增长了20%以上。公司网站的访问量一度达到正常水平的100倍,高到公司的网络安全系统判断网站受到攻击。“这是我们有史以来流量最高峰。”Ocado集团传播总监大卫·施赖弗表示。

Ocado遇到的情况并非孤例。3月19日咨询公司麦肯锡向杂货店客户提供的报告称,全球在线杂货店都面临高达700%的需求高峰。疫情大流行很有可能对消费者行为产生持久影响,危机消退之后很长时间里,都会有更多消费者选择在线购物。各超市要尽可能高效满足新需求,人们对Ocado自动化仓库、机器人和软件的兴趣也会随之提升。

尽管如此,Ocado跟其他同行一样,满足需求也不太顺利。为了应对铺天盖地的订单,Ocado关闭了其移动应用程序,还在网站上增加了排队系统。但需求实在太多,3月中旬Ocado一星期里的送货时间全被预订,被迫临时关闭网站。近一周后重新上线时,原有用户下单都受到限制,然而限制后还是很难及时送货。而且,Ocado跟许多杂货店一样,临时限制每件商品只能买两到三件,以阻止囤货。

Ocado正为其他最坏的情况做准备,主要问题是如果员工开始感染,或是全体团队要隔离该怎么办。(可能的解决办法包括从其他行业抽调休假员工去仓库,或开卡车送货。公司已经开始招收赋闲的Uber司机。)

病毒袭击之前,食品杂货店已承受巨大压力。“由于成本上升、效率下滑还有竞相降价,杂货店业务增长和盈利能力都在走低。”麦肯锡最近一份报告中写道。过去十年,北美和西欧的杂货店销售额增长率仅为2%。与此同时,咨询公司Mercator Advisory Group的数据显示,美国连锁杂货店平均净利润率只有1%至2%。不仅趋势令人沮丧,行业高层也很担心零售业的两大对头亚马逊和沃尔玛,两巨头均已明确表示要主导食品杂货业务。根据瑞银数据,沃尔玛已是美国最大的食品杂货销售商,市场份额为21.3%,比最接近的竞争对手超市连锁店克罗格份额高出一倍以上。

一些业内人士认为,“传统”杂货商与巨头竞争的唯一途径就是学习巨头最先进的技术和物流基础设施。自动化还有助于削减劳动力成本。麦肯锡的另一份2019年5月发布的报告估计,应用现有技术后,杂货店指出的工时可能减少55%至65%。

Ocado对杂货商的宣传强调了各项好处,还补充了令人信服的事实,即Ocado可协助搭建自动化基础设施,节省自行开发的精力和成本。

多年来,Ocado转型技术平台的说法似乎停留在口头上。股票分析师普遍怀疑,该股也是长期以来卖空者的最爱。但Ocado的物流能力逐渐获得了认可。从2017年开始,公司跟四大洲多家食品连锁店达成一系列许可协议,包括跟克罗格达成巨额合作协议。此后,Ocado的市值翻了两番超过100亿美元,每年收入增长约10%,2019年达到22亿美元。对科技公司来说如此慢的增速毫无意义,但对杂货店来说已相当可观。

投资者似乎相信Ocado能抓住当前的机会。2月28日以来,尽管全球市场暴跌,Ocado股价还是上涨了28%。然而,未来看起来有点灰暗。由于Ocado采取许可经营,前期要花巨资建设数十个订单分拣中心。相关债务导致一些分析师怀疑,目前背负逾7.5亿美元债务的Ocado承担的风险是不是太大。而且,即使大流行过去,有个问题也不容忽视,不管是哪家杂货商,即便引进Ocado的机器人帮助,能否挡住什么都卖的亚马逊,还有总部位于本顿维尔的沃尔玛的冲击。

Ocado于互联网繁盛时期创立,当时三位20多岁的英国人蒂姆·施泰纳、乔纳森·法曼和杰森·吉辛在高盛当交易员,投资创业公司亏了钱。2000年4月,三人联合成立了Ocado。(Ocado是个虚构的词,之所以选这个词是因为不属于任何一种语言,而且创始人喜欢这几个字母当标志的样子。)Ocado的首席执行官施泰纳是创始人里唯一留在公司的人。他看起来结实修长,短短的灰色头发,淡蓝色的眼睛,快速介绍Ocado的历史时散发出一种拳击手的气质。

跟强手达成战略伙伴关系有利于公司发展。Ocado发现自身规模很小,很难跟批发商谈到合适的价格,于是与高档英国连锁超市Waitrose签订协议,之后Ocado可参照其合作方式跟供应商交易。作为交换,Ocado同意接下来10年售卖带有Waitrose白色标志的产品(后来协议延长了10年)。Waitrose的百货商店母公司约翰·刘易斯曾投资4500万美元收购其40%的股份。

Ocado创立时,市场上的英国食品连锁店,如Tesco、Sainsbury’s和沃尔玛旗下的Asda电商业务均已上线。各家连锁店利用实体商店完成网上订单,店员选出商品装上送货卡车。该过程被称为“店内分拣”,是多数零售商将电子商务嫁接到现有业务上的方式。店内分拣不用投资额外的资本或劳动力,但存在缺点。很多店的储藏室太狭窄,无法承接大规模分拣操作,员工可能得在超市里根据在线订单选货,影响到店购物的客户体验。由于库存较小,商品也很有可能出现缺货现象,这是导致客户不满的主要原因。

没有实体店的Ocado采取了不同的做法。公司在伦敦北部边缘的哈特菲尔德建立了自动化中央配送中心,接收所有订单,可将库存短缺几率降至最低。这项业务迅速走红,一直在消费者调查中名列前茅。订单中商品替换或错误率均低于0.5%,远高于竞争对手。

问题是:哈特菲尔德应用的技术还有很多需要改进之处。Ocado使用的设备是巨型传送带和分拣机,都是为制造业工厂设计,工厂通常大量制造相同的产品。但这种模式不适合种类繁多的杂货店,而且每位顾客的订单都不一样。“之前我开过物料搬运设备的玩笑,感觉是5加5的投入只能得到7的回报。”施泰纳说。

与此同时,持续支出改善消耗了大量现金。2007年,Ocado的收入为3.38亿美元,每年以超过20%的速度飞速增长。但每年运营损失也超过4500万美元,还要花费数千万美元改进分拣中心,以及购买送货卡车。目前公司债务超过1.3亿美元。约翰·刘易斯已将对Ocado的投资减记为零。

大概这段时间里,管理过科技初创企业的软件顾问保罗·克拉克接到了Ocado招聘人员的电话。“当时我说:‘很抱歉,但我不想做零售业。’” 60岁左右,身材瘦长的克拉克回忆说,虽然没去牛津大学读成博士,但一身学者风范。后来克拉克参观了Ocado的仓库,对其规模和复杂性印象尤为深刻。哈特菲尔德是自动化方面的巨大难题,正是他喜欢解决的工程问题。“我立刻爱上了。”他说。

克拉克签了一年合同,任务是改进哈特菲尔德快速运转的传送带货品流动控制系统。克拉克说,Ocado的操作非常复杂,要重新设计的话,唯一方法就是搭建一系列数字“孪生体”,本质上是对操作的实时软件模拟。如此一来克拉克和团队能在实际仓库中实现配置改进之前进行试验,避免了代价高昂的测试和错误。施泰纳说,不久之后,新系统协助提高了设备效率,现在5加5能做到等于12。

2010年夏天,Ocado在伦敦证交所上市,估值为9.37亿英镑(按照当年汇率约合14亿美元)。在很多分析师预期里,一直赔钱的杂货店并不值这么多,上市首日公司股价下跌了10%。之后Ocado一直饱受怀疑情绪困扰,接下来10年里Ocado的股票经常像是市场上最爱卖空的股票之一,大帮基金经理在一边喝倒彩。

不过接下来的一年里,Ocado实现第一次实现营业利润。大约在同一时间,食品杂货咨询公司、投资银行,后来连宝洁、联合利华、雀巢和可口可乐等巨头也开始低调要求参观分拣中心。斯坦纳的本能反应是拒绝。“当时我们很保密。”他回忆说。但他很快意识到,虽然其他公司参观分拣中心可能会学到一些技巧,但Ocado十多年里搭建集成软件、硬件、仓库工人和送货流程的系统其实无法复制。2012年的年报中,Ocado首次提出将知识产权货币化制定为战略方针。

造访Ocdoad的公司当中也包括英国连锁超市莫里森,其收入远远超过Ocado,但没有电商业务。两家公司达成协议,将Ocado最新分拣中心一半产能出售给莫里森,Ocado还帮莫里森管理设施和送货车队。2014年1月莫里森网店Morrisons.com开业,证明了Ocado的平台可用于其他公司。

当时克拉克已擢升为首席技术官,他对平台的构想更加雄心勃勃。Ocado推出莫里森网店的第二天,克拉克在当地一家酒店召集员工开会。他首先祝贺短短六个月内就让莫里森网站如期投入运营,这是重大的技术成就。但他接下来的话让很多人倒吸一口冷气。“整个技术堆栈要重写。”他告诉员工。刚开始,重写主要意味着软件改进。但到2015年中,Ocado已经开始研发大批机器人,在“蜂巢”里忙碌。

机器人由Ocdoo与英国机器人公司Tharsus共同设计,通过内部4G网络控制,其基站之密集,在全球都无出其右。网络中每台机器人每秒能跟控制软件完成10次通信。厄里斯的蜂巢每天产生4兆兆字节的数据,所有数据都反馈到数字孪生体中以完善系统。

应用机器人后,Ocado最新的分拣中心每工时可拣选200件商品,意味着收到正常订单后,商品从供应卡车运到蜂巢,拣选、包装并装车等待配送,全过程不到15分钟。同时,由于蜂箱的模块化设计,可以很容易地复制和调整大小以适应新位置。

公司还为硬件搭配了诸多新软件,从基于云的移动应用到人工智能均囊括在内。现在Ocado向全世界的杂货店提供集成软件包,以及维护和升级的工程支持服务。

亚马逊和沃尔玛对机器人技术并不陌生,2012年亚马逊以7.75亿美元收购马萨诸塞州Kiva公司后,已开始使用Roomba型机器人,在分拣中心运送大堆货物。去年,亚马逊还收购了科罗拉多州博尔德市的初创公司Canvas,利用该公司的计算机视觉系统,仓库机器人可以在拥挤的环境中跟人类共同工作。沃尔玛则从匹兹堡的Bossa Nova Robotics订购了数千台机器人,用来跟踪门店库存。沃尔玛还在新罕布什尔州试点了全自动化仓库,为用户在线下单线下自提业务提供支持。

单纯做超市业务的公司自动化速度慢得多。但在2017年6月,亚马逊推出的重大举措为Ocado推广现代化销售提供了V型助力。当时,线上百货商店亚马逊斥资137亿美元收购了在全球有500家门店的高档商品商店全食超市(Whole Foods)。杂货商普遍担心亚马逊也会吞掉自己的业务,因为亚马逊在其他行业有过先例,对Ocado技术的兴趣也骤然汹涌。

2017年11月,Ocado宣布与法国零售商Groupe Casino达成协议,为电商业务提供技术。两个月后又与Sobeys达成合作,Sobeys在加拿大经营1500家不同品牌的店面。“这是我见过唯一能实现大规模盈利的电商模式。”Sobeys电商业务高级副总裁莎拉·乔伊斯谈到Ocado时表示。

随后还有几笔交易,包括跟经营1300种杂货的瑞典公司ICA、澳大利亚的Coles还有日本的亚洲最大连锁超市Aeon。但规模最大的还是2018年5月Ocado与克罗格达成的战略合作。根据协议,美国巨头克罗格收购Ocado的5%股份,并获得了在美国独家应用其技术的权利。Ocado则承诺为克罗格建造约20家分拣中心。合伙企业上市当天,Ocado股票飙升了44%。

克罗格的首席执行官罗德尼·麦克马伦表示,观察Ocado长达10年,还跟公司高管定期会面。2013年一次合并后,克罗格电商业务主要采用店内分拣方式,但麦克马伦表示,随着业务规模增长,越发难以完成。为了让线上和店内顾客都能满意,克罗格倾向于Ocado的自动化分拣中心。麦克马伦承认也在密切关注亚马逊和沃尔玛,但他坚称跟Ocado合作跟竞争对手毫无关系。“主要原因是我们一两年内根本不可能追上Ocado的水平。”麦克马伦说。

缺乏资源模仿Ocado的技术,也正是客户跟Ocado合作的常见原因。“我们公司规模很大,但技术并非专攻。”瑞典公司ICA首席执行官安德斯·斯文森说。相比之下,Ocado雇佣了1800多名软件工程师和600多名硬件专家。比起亚马逊或谷歌当然少得多,但在杂货行业里已经是很庞大的技术团队。

面对大批许可经营协议,很多投资者不得不放弃怀疑,Ocado被大量做空的日子也一去不返。“之前我拼命做空,但Ocado跟克罗格合作后,我拼命做多。”股票研究公司伯恩斯坦负责欧洲零售商的分析师布鲁诺·蒙泰恩说。不过,相关交易并未增加太多利润,因为自动分拣中心建设完成后Ocado才能收到回报。

Ocado目前经营六家分拣中心,支持在英国食品杂货店业务,其目标是十年内在全球范围内至少经营50家。3月26日,Ocado在英国之外为法国Groupe Casino建造的第一家分拣中心正式启用。另一家位于多伦多郊外为Sobeys建造的分拣中心将于6月开业。至于为克罗格建设的第一家分拣中心,按照计划2021年上半年将在俄亥俄州门罗县投入使用。

Ocado的合作伙伴收购土地、搭建外部建筑、组建送货车队和雇佣员工。Ocado负责建造蜂箱,提供机器人和软件,还要提供培训和现场工程支持。施泰纳表示,平均算下来每家分拣中心的“现金流出峰值”大概为4000万至4500万美元。建设完成后,Ocado才能根据仓库的可用容量收取费用。最近一个财年里,Ocado只有6%的收入来自许可经营。

苏格兰皇家银行资本市场的股票分析师谢里·马莱克表示,2022年之前Ocado都很难从许可经营业务获得正现金流。与此同时,巨额投资导致损失不断膨胀,2019年初,一家分拣中心又毁于灾难性的大火,导致损失进一步恶化。

迫在眉睫的问题是,冠状病毒会不会阻碍Ocado扩张。疫情第一次爆发时,Ocado就遇到了困难,因为机器人关键零件在中国武汉制造,而武汉正是疫情爆发中心。(此后Ocado找了另一家供货商。)Ocado主要聘请本地工程团队,因此旅行禁令影响较小。在大多数地方,杂货行业和建筑均为必需行业,所以不必停工。今年3月,Ocado的首席财务官邓肯·塔顿·布朗对记者表示,Ocado将坚持完成海外分拣中心建设。不过他也承认,如果限行措施持续数月,时间表将受到拖累。

与此同时,Ocado也不指望疫情相关收入增长能一直持续。大部分销售额增长来自购买干货和不易腐产品的顾客。该公司预测,下半年随着顾客不断清库存,相关商品的需求将低于正常水平。因此,公司并未上调全年销售和盈利预期。

即便在新冠病毒爆发之前,一些观察家就怀疑Ocado与杂货商合作能否有回报。投行Jefferies的食品零售和分销分析师克里斯托弗·曼德维尔特别批评了跟克罗格的合作。他说,除了少数几座大城市,美国的人口密度还不够支持Ocado的分拣中心模式。如果说疫情期间有什么不同,就是证明了“店内拣货”可能更具弹性。如果发生危机导致需求激增,商店可以雇佣员工完成在线订单,而分拣中心的设计是多数时候接近满产能工作,没有那么灵活。

类似疑虑并未影响Ocado筹集资金。2018年公司发行了1.87亿美元的股票。2019年2月,Ocado将50%的英国电商业务出售给英国零售商玛莎百货。对投资者来说,此次出售让Ocado定位更单纯,就是纯粹的技术平台,同时筹集了9.82亿美元。(玛莎百货也成为Ocado新的食品批发合作伙伴;Ocado与Waitrose的长期合同将于2020年底终止。)12月Ocado还出售了6.55亿美元的可转债。

Ocado频繁融资让一些分析师不安。但首席执行官施泰纳表示,融资是实力的象征,而不是弱点。“融资的唯一原因是打算做更多(业务)。”他表示。今年2月,全球最著名的投资者也对Ocado的战略间接投了信任票,沃伦·巴菲特旗下的伯克希尔-哈撒韦公司在提交政府的文件中披露,斥资近5.5亿美元收购了克罗格2.3%的股权。

虽然Ocado在全球范围内率先推出机器分拣中心,但首席技术官克拉克正关注下一个技术转折点。他测试了新款机器人,包括装有类似人手装置的机器人,今后可以完全代替人类拣货。他在研究不损坏水果之类易碎物品的捡取方法。Ocado还测试了叫“第二手”的机器人,此类机器人能用轮子行走,但有仿人类的躯干、头部和手臂,可以修理蜂箱和传送带。克拉克说,最终“目标是设备内完全黑暗”,也就是说分拣中心几乎没有人类参与。

机器人并不是克拉克唯一关心的事。在“垂直”农业领域也就是可持续农业的室内试验方面,Ocado进行了多项投资。公司收购了欧洲最大垂直农业公司Jones Foods的多数股权,投资成立了名叫Infinite Acres的合资企业,以及一家名为80 Acres Urban Agriculture的美国初创企业,还有荷兰Priva Holdings公司。另一项投资是英国初创企业Karakuri,该公司创建了自动厨房,可准备好餐厅级别饭菜然后送货。克拉克说,Ocado设想是构建“整合食品机器”。他解释说,通过垂直耕作、准备食品和同一设施内配送,“可实现从农场到餐桌两个小时或更短的时间内完成。”

施泰纳和克拉克也开始看食品之外的领域,寻找利润丰厚的业务。Ocado在物流、人工智能、机器人技术和仿真方面的专长可应用于自动停车场、包裹分拣、行李搬运、铁路货运、集装箱港口和模块化、可配置建筑等。克拉克说,公司已经在相关领域申请了多项专利。克拉克表示,Ocado研发了模拟停车系统,而且开始探索扩大版机器人,以处理比一箱香蕉重得多的货物。

由于Ocado核心的食品杂货业务仍在努力证明可持续性,向其他领域拓展听起来有点压力。不过,如果想知道Ocado为什么想做停车场或港口运营业务,施泰纳有个现成的答案:如果当初亚马逊只卖书,现在会怎样?(财富中文网)

本文另一版本登载于《财富》杂志2020年5月刊,标题为《新冠疫情前线上的杂货机器人》。

译者:Feb

The robots are mesmerizing. Inside a warehouse in Erith, on the outskirts of East London, more than a thousand of them glide across a vast steel and aluminum grid. Each is the size and shape of an office copy machine, topped with stubby antennae and a shining neon-green LED. Following individual routes, they whiz off, accelerating at rates rivaling those of a Ferrari. They stop on a dime, reverse, shoot left or right, or momentarily pause to allow fellow robots to pass—a meticulously choreographed electric ballet.

The robots’ grid is actually the top of a giant three-dimensional lattice—a modular cage packed with groceries. Each time a robot stops, it drops a clawlike attachment into the bowels of the lattice (“the hive,” as human workers call it), descending as many as three stories. The claw grabs the sides of a white plastic crate containing fruit, vegetables, cereal—any of 55,000 different items—and retracts it up into the robot’s belly. The robot then carries the crate to another grid square and lowers it into the “pick tunnel,” which sits beneath the hive on the warehouse’s ground floor. There, workers pick items out of the crates to fill customers’ orders, placing the groceries into red plastic bins, which are then loaded onto trucks for delivery.

This warehouse, or customer fulfillment center (CFC), as logistics pros call it, is one of the most sophisticated and automated on the planet, one that can handle many tens of thousands of orders a week. It belongs to Ocado, a pioneering British online grocer that is positioning itself as a white knight for the beleaguered grocery sector—and possibly other industries too—offering to help supermarket chains compete in an automated age.

Ocado’s robot-powered warehouses thrum with activity on ordinary days; since the coronavirus crisis erupted, they’ve been in roaring overdrive. The pandemic has given the company a chance to prove it can keep an online grocery business humming, even when its human workforce faces unprecedented strain. Yet at the same time, the crisis’s upending of daily life has threatened to knock Ocado off its growth trajectory, just when it seemed tantalizingly close to becoming a global force.

Like most grocers, Ocado has faced skyrocketing demand fueled by social distancing measures and panic buying. Its U.K. grocery sales in March leaped more than 20% year over year. At one point, visits to its website were 100 times the normal rate—a level so high, it triggered the company’s cybersecurity systems to believe the website was under attack. “This is the peakiest peak we’ve ever had in the history of the business,” says David Shriver, Ocado’s group director of communications.

Ocado is hardly alone in this. Consultants McKinsey & Co., in a note to grocery clients on March 19, reported that online grocers worldwide were struggling to meet demand spikes as high as 700%. There’s a good chance the pandemic will have a lasting impact on consumer behavior, converting many more customers to online grocery shopping long after the crisis recedes. Supermarkets will need ways to meet this new demand as efficiently as possible—which ought to boost interest in Ocado’s automated warehouses, robots, and software.

Still, like its peers, Ocado has sometimes stumbled as it races to keep up. To try to slow the overwhelming order volume, Ocado shut down its mobile app and implemented a queuing system on its website. But demand was simply too great, and with all its delivery slots booked for a week out, Ocado was forced to temporarily shut down its website in mid-March. When it came back online, almost a week later, the company restricted orders to existing customers; even so, delivery slots remain difficult to find. And, like many grocers, Ocado temporarily limited customers to two or three of any individual item to deter hoarding.

Ocado is now preparing for other worst-case scenarios; it has held rehearsals for what will happen if its employees begin to fall ill and entire teams need to self-isolate. (One possible solution: drafting furloughed workers from other industries to staff warehouses and drive trucks. The company has already reached out to recruit idled Uber drivers.)

Even before the coronavirus hit, grocers were under tremendous pressure. “Both growth and profitability have been on a downward trajectory due to higher costs, falling productivity, and race-to-the-bottom pricing,” McKinsey wrote in a recent report. Sales growth for North American and Western European grocers has been just 2% over the past decade. Net profit margins for U.S. grocery chains, meanwhile, average just 1% to 2%, according to consulting firm Mercator Advisory Group. On top of these dismal trends, executives in the sector fear the twin Death Stars of retail—Amazon and Walmart—both of which have made clear their intentions to dominate the grocery business. Walmart is already by far the largest seller of groceries in the U.S., with a 21.3% market share, according to UBS, more than twice the share of its nearest competitor, supermarket chain Kroger.

Some industry insiders argue that the only way “legacy” grocers can compete with the titans is by matching their state-of-the-art technology and logistics infrastructure. That automation could also help them trim labor costs: another McKinsey report, from May 2019, estimated that by implementing existing technologies, a grocer could potentially run a store with 55% to 65% fewer labor-hours.

Ocado’s pitch to grocers stresses those benefits and adds a compelling twist: Ocado can build the automation infrastructure for them, sparing them the pains and costs of developing their own.

For many years, Ocado’s talk of becoming a tech platform seemed to be just that: talk. Equity analysts were skeptical, and the stock became a perennial favorite among short-sellers. But Ocado’s logistics prowess has gradually won converts. Beginning in 2017, the company announced a series of licensing deals with grocery chains on four continents—including a huge partnership with Kroger. Since then, Ocado’s market capitalization has quadrupled to north of $10 billion, while revenue has been growing at about 10% annually, reaching $2.2 billion in 2019. That kind of growth is nothing for a tech company—but it’s exceptional for a grocery.

Investors seem confident that Ocado can capitalize on the current moment; its shares have risen 28% since Feb. 28, even as global markets plummeted. The future, however, looks murkier. Ocado’s licensing deals require it to spend heavily upfront to build dozens of CFCs. Those obligations have left some analysts wondering if the company, which currently carries more than $750 million in debt, has taken on too much risk. And, even once the pandemic passes, an existential question looms: whether any grocer, even with Ocado’s robotic helping hand, can withstand the onslaught of the Everything Store and the Behemoth of Bentonville.

Ocado’s roots stretch back to the dotcom boom, when three twentysomething Brits working as traders at Goldman Sachs—Tim Steiner, Jonathan Faiman, and Jason Gissing—got bitten by the startup bug. The trio founded Ocado in April 2000. (The name is an invented word, chosen because it could work across languages and because the founders liked how it looked as a logo.) Steiner, Ocado’s CEO, is the only founder still involved with the company. Compact and trim, with close-cropped gray hair and pale blue eyes, he exudes a pugilistic intensity as he walks through Ocado’s history at a rapid-fire clip.

A strategic partnership helped get the new company going. Realizing it was too small to get the best prices from wholesalers, Ocado signed a deal with the upmarket U.K. supermarket chain Waitrose, allowing Ocado to piggyback on its deals with suppliers. In exchange, Ocado agreed to carry Waitrose’s white label products for ten years (a deal that was later extended for an additional decade). Waitrose’s parent company, the retailer John Lewis, invested $45 million for a 40% stake in the company.

When Ocado made its debut, established British grocery chains such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Walmart-owned Asda already had e-commerce operations. Those chains were using their stores to fulfill online orders, with store clerks gathering the goods and loading them onto delivery trucks. This process, known as “store pick,” is the way most retailers have grafted e-commerce onto their existing operations. Store pick requires little additional capital or labor investment, but it has disadvantages. Many stores’ stockrooms are too cramped to accommodate a sizable picking operation, which means employees may have to fill online orders from the supermarket floor, putting them in competition with in-store customers. With smaller inventories, there’s also a greater chance that items won’t be available—a leading driver of customer dissatisfaction.

Ocado, which had no stores, took a different approach. It built an automated central distribution center in Hatfield, on London’s northern edge, and delivered all its orders from there—a strategy that helped it minimize inventory shortfalls. The business quickly became popular, consistently topping consumer surveys. Its rate of substituted or erroneous items in orders—which it drove down below 0.5%—was much better than those of its rivals.

The problem: The technology at Hatfield left a lot to be desired. The equipment Ocado was using—giant conveyor belts and sorting machines—was designed for the manufacturing sector, where factories churn out mass volumes of identical items. It was ill-suited for the grocery business, where the assortment of items is huge, and each customer’s order is unique. “I used to joke about the law of material-handling equipment, which was, Five plus five equals seven,” Steiner says.

Constant spending on improvements, meanwhile, was eating up cash. By 2007, Ocado’s revenues were $338 million, and galloping ahead at more than 20% annually. But the company was also running annual operating losses of more than $45 million—and spending tens of millions more to improve its CFC and purchase delivery trucks. It had more than $130 million of debt. At one point, John Lewis wrote its investment in the young online grocer down to zero.

Around this time, Paul Clarke, a software consultant with experience running tech startups, received a call from an Ocado recruiter. “I said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry, but I don’t want to work in retail,’” recalls Clarke, a lanky 60-year-old with the professorial demeanor of the Oxford PhD he once considered becoming. But when he toured Ocado’s warehouse, Clarke was impressed by its scale and complexity. Hatfield was a giant automation puzzle—exactly the sort of engineering problem he enjoyed cracking. “I fell in love,” he says.

Clarke signed on for a one-year gig, tasked with improving the system that controlled the flow of goods along Hatfield’s fast--moving conveyor belts. Ocado’s operation was so complex, Clarke says, that the only way to reengineer it was to build a series of digital “twins”—in essence, real-time software simulations of the operation. This allowed Clarke and his team to experiment with improved configurations before implementing them in the real warehouse, avoiding costly trial and error. Before long, Steiner says, the twins helped wring new efficiencies from equipment—making five plus five equal 12.

In the summer of 2010, Ocado went public on the London Stock Exchange, in a listing that valued the company at 937 million pounds ($1.4 billion at the time). That was more than many analysts thought the money-losing grocer was worth, and its shares fell 10% on their first day of trading. That skepticism would continue to haunt Ocado: Over the next decade, its shares would frequently have the dubious distinction of the being among the market’s most shorted, a Greek chorus of hedge fund managers cheering for its failure.

Over the following year, though, Ocado eked out its first small operating profit. Around the same time, grocery consultants, investment banks, and, eventually, huge packaged goods companies—Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé, and Coca-Cola—began quietly asking to tour the company’s fulfillment centers. Steiner’s instinct was to refuse. “We were quite secretive,” he recalls. But he soon realized that while other companies might glean a few tips by touring the CFCs, they couldn’t replicate the integrated system of software, hardware, warehouse workers, and delivery drivers Ocado had built over a decade. In its 2012 annual report, Ocado for the first time made monetizing its intellectual property a strategic plank.

Among those who visited Ocado was the U.K. grocer Morrisons, which had revenues far exceeding Ocado’s but didn’t have an online offering. The two companies reached a deal that sold half the capacity of Ocado’s newest CFC to Morrisons, with Ocado agreeing to manage the facility and a delivery fleet on Morrisons’ behalf. When Morrisons.com launched in January 2014, it was the first evidence that Ocado could put its platform to work for other grocers.

Clarke, who by then had been promoted to chief technology officer, had an even more ambitious version of that platform in mind. The day after Ocado launched Morrisons, Clarke gathered his staff for an off-site in a local hotel. He congratulated them on having gotten Morrisons up and running on schedule and in just six months—a significant technical achievement. What he said next made many in the room gasp. “We’re going to rewrite the whole technology stack from scratch,” he told them. At first, this largely meant software improvements. But, by mid-2015, Ocado had begun developing the army of robots that would eventually staff its “hives.”

The robots, designed by Ocado in conjunction with U.K. robotics company Tharsus, are controlled by an internal 4G network with more base stations packed into less space than pretty much anywhere else on the planet. The network enables each robot to communicate with the software controlling it 10 times per second. At Erith, the hive generates four terabytes of data every day, all of which is fed back into a digital twin to refine the system.

The robots allow Ocado’s newest fulfillment centers to pick 200 items per hour of labor time—and mean they can move a typical order from inbound supply truck into the hive, and then have it picked, packed, and loaded on a van for delivery in 15 minutes or less. Meanwhile, the modular design of the hive itself means it can easily be replicated and sized to fit new locations.

Complementing the hardware is new software—lots of it, from cloud-based mobile apps to artificial intelligence. This integrated package, along with the engineering support to maintain and upgrade it, is what Ocado now offers to the world’s grocers.

Amazon and Walmart are no strangers to robotics. Amazon has begun using Roomba-like robots from Kiva, a Massachusetts company it acquired in 2012 for $775 million, to move large stacks of pallets around its fulfillment centers. Last year, it also acquired Canvas, a Boulder, Colo., startup whose computer vision systems allow the warehouse robots it builds to work in crowded conditions alongside people. Walmart has deployed thousands of robots from Bossa Nova Robotics, a Pittsburgh company, to keep track of stock in its stores. It has also created a pilot, fully automated warehouse in New Hampshire that serves its order-online-and-customer-pickup grocery business.

Pure-play supermarkets have been far slower to automate. But in June 2017, a major move by Amazon gave Ocado’s modernization sales pitch a Saturn V–size boost. That was when the Everything Store spent $13.7 billion to buy upscale grocer Whole Foods, which had 500 stores worldwide. The deal stoked grocers’ fears that Amazon would decimate them as it had so many retailers in other categories—and the trickle of interest in Ocado’s technology became a torrent.

In November 2017, Ocado announced a deal with French retailer Groupe Casino to supply the technology for its e-commerce in France. Two months later, it partnered with Sobeys, which operates 1,500 stores under a variety of brand names across Canada. “It’s the only profitable e-commerce model at scale that I’ve seen,” Sarah Joyce, Sobeys senior vice president for e-commerce, says of Ocado.

Several other deals followed, including with ICA, a Swedish company that operates 1,300 groceries; with Coles, in Australia; and with Aeon, Asia’s largest supermarket chain, in Japan. But the biggest of them all was the strategic partnership Ocado reached in May 2018 with Kroger. The American giant took a 5% share in Ocado and gained exclusive U.S. rights to its technology; Ocado committed to building about 20 CFCs for Kroger. The British company’s shares soared 44% on the day the partnership became public.

Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s CEO, says he had been watching Ocado for a decade, meeting periodically with its top executives. Kroger implemented a store pick–based -e-commerce operation after a 2013 merger, but McMullen says it became unwieldy as it grew. The struggle to keep both online and in-store customers happy was driving Kroger toward towards the same sort of automated fulfilment centers Ocado had. McMullen admits to keeping a close eye on Amazon and Walmart, but he insists the Ocado partnership is not about what competition might do. “We didn’t see a path where we could accelerate to where Ocado is in a year or two,” McMullen says.

It’s a common refrain among Ocado’s customers: They lack the resources to replicate Ocado’s technology. “We are a big company, but we are not a technology company,” says Anders Svensson, the CEO of ICA Sweden. Ocado, in contrast, employs more than 1,800 software engineers and 600 hardware specialists. That’s far less than Amazon or Google, but it’s a lot for a grocer.

The slew of licensing deals pushed many investors to abandon their skepticism: It’s been a long time since Ocado was a heavily shorted stock. “I used to be a big bear, but I became a big bull after the Kroger deal,” says Bruno Monteyne, an analyst who covers European retailers for the equity research firm Bernstein Research. Still, those deals aren’t adding much to the bottom line—because Ocado receives money only after the automated CFCs are built.

Ocado currently operates six CFCs to support its U.K. grocery operation; it aims to run at least 50 worldwide within the decade. Its first CFC outside Britain, built for France’s Groupe Casino, went live on March 26. Another, for Sobeys, outside Toronto, should open by June. And its first center for Kroger is scheduled to come online in Monroe, Ohio, in the first half of 2021.

Ocado’s partners are responsible for acquiring land, building external structures, providing a delivery fleet, and hiring workers. But Ocado has to build the hives, supply the robots and software, and provide training and on-site engineering support. It costs Ocado $40 million to $45 million in “peak cash outflow” for each average-size CFC, Steiner says. Only after construction does Ocado collect a fee based on the warehouses’ available capacity. In its most recent fiscal year, just 6% of Ocado’s revenue came from licensing.

Sherri Malek, an equity analyst at RBC Capital Markets, says Ocado won’t see positive free cash flow from its licensing until at least 2022. Meanwhile, Ocado’s heavy investment has led to ballooning losses—worsened by a catastrophic fire that gutted one of its CFCs in early 2019.

One looming question is whether the coronavirus could thwart Ocado’s expansion. When the pandemic first struck, Ocado encountered trouble obtaining a key part for its robots, because it was made in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak. (The company has since found an alternate supplier.) Ocado mostly hires local engineering teams, so travel bans have had little impact on its plans. And grocery and construction workers have been classified as essential in most places, enabling work to continue. Duncan Tatton-Brown, Ocado’s CFO, told reporters in March that the company is sticking to its guidance on the completion of its international CFCs. Still, he acknowledged that if restrictions on movement stayed in place for many months, the construction timeline would suffer.

At the same time, Ocado doesn’t expect all of its pandemic-driven revenue boost to last. Much of its sales bump came from customers buying dry goods and other nonperishables; the company predicts that demand for many of these items will fall below normal levels in the second half of the year, as customers work through their stockpiles. As a result, the company has not raised its full-year sales and earnings forecasts.

Even before the coronavirus, some observers were doubtful that Ocado’s grocer partnerships would pay off. Christopher Mandeville, a food retail and distribution analyst at research firm Jefferies, has criticized the Kroger deal in particular. Other than in a few major cities, he says, population density in the U.S. isn’t high enough to support Ocado’s CFC model. If anything, the pandemic has shown that “store pick” may be a more resilient business model: Stores can staff up to fulfill online orders if a crisis prompts a surge in demand, whereas automated CFCs, designed to operate close to capacity most of the time, aren’t as flexible.

Such doubts haven’t stopped Ocado from raising capital. It issued a $187 million share offering in 2018. In February 2019, it sold 50% of its British e-commerce operation to U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer. The sale simplified Ocado’s proposition to investors, positioning it as more of a pure-play tech platform, while raising $982 million. (Marks & Spencer will also become Ocado’s new wholesale food partner; Ocado’s long-term supply contract with Waitrose comes to an end in late 2020.) Ocado also sold $655 million of convertible bonds in December.

The frequency of Ocado’s fundraising has made some analysts uneasy. But Steiner, the CEO, says the efforts are a sign of strength, not weakness. “The only reason to do a capital raise is because you think you are going to do more [business],” he says. And in February, the world’s most prominent investor offered an indirect vote of confidence in Ocado’s strategy: Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway disclosed in government filings that it had spent almost $550 million to buy a 2.3% stake in Kroger.

While Ocado breaks ground on CFCs around the world, Clarke, the chief technology officer, is peering around the next technological bend. He has experimented with new robots, including ones with human-like hands that could someday eliminate the need for human pickers altogether. He’s also helped research ones that could grasp delicate items, like fruit, without damaging them. And Ocado has trialed a robot called SecondHands, which travels on wheels but has a humanoid torso, head and arms, to help carry out repairs to the hive and conveyors. Eventually, Clarke says, “the goal is to move to an entirely dark facility”—that is, a CFC with almost no people.

Robots aren’t the only topic on Clarke’s mind. Ocado has made multiple investments in “vertical” farming—indoor experiments in sustainable agriculture. It bought a majority stake in Jones Foods, Europe’s largest vertical farming company, and has put money into a joint venture called Infinite Acres along with a U.S. startup called 80 Acres Urban Agriculture and Dutch company Priva Holdings. Another investment is Karakuri, a British startup creating automated kitchens that can prepare restaurant-style meals for delivery. Clarke says Ocado envisions building an “integrated food machine.” By combining vertical farming, food prep, and delivery in one facility, he explains, “you might be able to go from plant to kitchen table in two hours or less.”

Steiner and Clarke have also begun looking beyond food altogether in search of profitable business lines. Ocado’s expertise in logistics, A.I., robotics, and simulation could be deployed to tackle automated car parks, parcel sorting, baggage handling, rail freight, container ports and modular, configurable buildings. Clarke says the company has filed patents in a number of these areas. Ocado has already created simulations of a car-parking system, Clarke says, and has begun exploring scaled-up versions of its robots for handling freight far heavier than a crate of bananas.

It all may sound like a stretch for a company whose core grocery business is still fighting to prove its staying power. But for those who wonder why Ocado would want to expand into parking or port operations, Steiner has a ready answer: What if Amazon had simply stopped with books? 

A version of this story appears in the May 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “The grocery robots on the pandemic front lines.”

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