Ocado’s largest warehouse will be unable to fulfil the online supermarket’s orders for several days after a robot malfunction caused a fire.
Friday’s incident is the second major blaze in three years at one of Ocado’s vast automated warehouses.
This weekend’s closure of its Erith customer fulfilment centre, which can process 150,000 orders per week for its retail joint-venture with Marks and Spencer, caused Ocado to delay or cancel thousands of orders.
“While we expect some disruption to operations, we are working to restore normal service as soon as possible,” Ocado said. “We expect the facility to begin operating within the coming week and thank customers whose orders are affected for their patience.”
London’s fire brigade said that it sent 15 fire engines and 100 firefighters to tackle the blaze, after the three-storey facility’s 800 staff had been evacuated.
“The fire was deep seated and was a challenging operation,” the fire brigade said, taking almost 14 hours to bring under control. No injuries were reported.
Ocado said in a statement that the incident “appears to have been caused by the collision of three bots on the grid”.
In Ocado’s “hive” system, more than a thousand robots buzz around a grid, stopping to grab crates of food, then depositing them for human pickers to pack customer orders.
“The damage is limited to a small section of less than 1 per cent of the grid, having been contained by planned fire attenuation measures,” Ocado said. “Aside from some residual smoke smell, the vast majority of the CFC is in good condition.”
A robot fire was also blamed for the destruction of Ocado’s Andover warehouse in Hampshire in 2019, which cost the company around £110m, excluding insurance cover, and has taken more than two years to rebuild.
Reduced capacity at Andover contributed to Ocado’s struggles to meet a surge in customer demand during the UK’s Covid-19 lockdowns, opening the door to increased competition in online grocery delivery.
Online grocery delivery services operating in the UK have received hundreds of millions of dollars of venture-capital funding this year.
The sophistication of Ocado’s robotic warehouses means they can take a long time to construct. A second bot fire may also worry potential customers of its Solutions business, which sells its proprietary fulfilment system to other retailers, including Kroger in the US and Casino in France.
The online grocer has been working to increase its CFC capacity, introducing smaller versions of its automated warehouse to offer same-day delivery through its Ocado Zoom service.