Not content with being the world’s largest dedicated online groceries retailer, Ocado is building an end-to-end retail platform that it hopes to roll out to partners across the world, similar to Amazon’s model, but for groceries. The retailer believes that the 25-year deal with Britain’s fourth biggest supermarket Morrisons, signed in 2013, is the first of many that it hopes to sign.

To go beyond the Ocado and Morrisons tied up and support this ambition, Paul Clarke, CTO of Ocado, is on a mission to recruit the best and brightest technology experts. He claims that people who apply and get jobs at Ocado are also doing second interviews at major tech companies like Google. Here, he provides an insight into the depth and breadth of technology research and development he is responsible for at Ocado, where robotics, smart vision systems, Google Glass and Internet of Things are just some of the areas that the company is looking at.

Before he became CTO in January 2012, Clarke was a head of department at Ocado. Prior to that, he worked on the team that designed Ocado’s Dordon warehouse. He co-wrote the company’s first mobile app, and set up its simulation teams so that the company could better model warehouses before it opened a new one.

At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical IT geek, Clarke describes Ocado’s warehouses as an important piece of the puzzle for him, and is a big part of why he is still at the company nearly a decade after joining as a contractor.

“I came eight years ago to Ocado to do a one-year consultancy project for them, thinking I’d go on to do something else after, and what I found here completely surprised me. I found this very, very innovative start-up culture that was the next closest thing to anything I’d ever known in a start-up. I fell in love with this marriage of hardware and software.

“[The warehouse] is very tangible, very different from building desktop applications or mobile apps. There’s something about controlling stuff that’s moving around which I personally find quite exciting.”

Clarke, who read Physics at the University of Oxford, started his career working for Scicon, a large software consultancy - a wholly-owned subsidiary of BP - forseveral years before setting up a start-up company, Torus Systems, with a group colleagues and friends.

The start-up was based in Trinity Science Park in Cambridge and focused on building an iconic user interface for the - at the time - newly-launched, IBM PC. The project was successful, resulting in a sale of the project to IBM, but then the start-up suffered “a typical founder dispute”.

“Two of us wanted to move it to the US, the other two didn’t. The two of us who wanted to move decided to leave and set up another start-up in Cambridge, doing stuff with database servers. We turned out to be right and should have gone to the US, and eventually the company got sold,” Clarke says.

Innovation

Nevertheless, Clarke had been bitten by the start-up bug, and it is a trait he fosters at Ocado. This involves the go-getting attitude needed to develop what you want to have, not just what is available on the market, and seeing the potential in the newest of technologies.

For instance, the secret behind Ocado’s warehouse operations are smart vision systems and robots.

Normally, robots are programmed and taught to do the same thing again and again, for example, paint a car on the production line or fill an empty box with layers of equal-sized boxes.

At Ocado, however, robots need to be more intelligent. They need to be able to learn, but also to see in 3D to a fine resolution.

“If you want to teach a robot to make decisions on the fly based on what it sees, you’re going to have to build more sophisticated vision systems for that,” Clarke says.

He explains: “If you want [a robot] to look inside a box that has carrier bags and goods in there, put in by a mixture of humans and robots, and if you want to place an item into there, your vision system is going to have to look in and work out what’s there, decide what’s going to be put on top of what, and place an item carefully in order you don't put, say, soap powder, on top of eggs. That is a challenge.”

Buy, try, build, replace

When Ocado went live in 2002, the retailer glued together a range of off-the-shelf technology to product the smart vision systems it needed. While it was enough at the start, the technology was not scalable, so the company decided to develop its own smart vision systems to fill a gap in the market.

“We build it ourselves because we want to be in control of our destiny, and because if it breaks at three in the morning, we want to be able to fix it at three in the morning because we can’t afford those outages. We don’t want to be on a hook to some other company to fix it.

“We build it so we can own all the IP, source code, so that we can license it. But we also build it because you can’t buy it because no one’s done what we’re doing before.“

This is part of what Clarke calls the ‘buy, try, build, replace’ pattern.

“We’ll often find out what we need by buying something in to see what we might really want. Then we develop what we really want, then replace what we bought in,” he explains.

As for new technologies that Ocado is interested in, Google’s 3D scanning camera, 3D printing, internet of things (IoT) and wearables are all on the list.

Although Google’s 3D scanning camera has been designed for gaming and entertainment, Clarke believes that there are going to be “lots” of innovation in this area, for industrial and consumer applications.

He is also interested in 3D printing for food and non-food items, like spare parts for goods. This would saving on the cost of storing, for example.

“I’m personally, and we are, very interested in the whole internet of things, machine to machine communication. We already have a lot of machines in our business talking to each other. So [we’re interested in] the whole area of wearables and how you talk to a mixture of people with wearables and machines,” says Clarke.

“It’s interesting for our customers and our staff because we have a lot of people working in facilities in our warehouse, and I think wearables have a very interesting role to play here, including things like Google Glass.”

Clarke, who has had a go with Google Glass, pooh-poohs privacy concerns that have been raised around the wearable.

“We’re eagerly awaiting getting our hands on them [Google Glass] in greater volumes to see what industrial applications there are.

“There are some people worried about the privacy implications of it, but frankly, I hope that excitement around the possible will overwhelm the paranoia around what might happen. The wider area of wearables is just going to be enormous.”

Equally significant for Ocado as a retailer and an employer is the area of predictive intelligence, often referred to as smart machines.

“For me, a fantastic example is Google Now, which I’ve never told I go to work each day, it’s just learnt it,” Clarke says, referring to the inbuilt Android phone application.

“That inference capability is going to get much, much smarter. We think that has got huge implications for our website, for our mobile apps, for all sorts of things.”

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