How To Be A Bot Whisperer
Our operations teams maintain advanced warehouse automation systems, including robots! Engineering Operations Trainer Terry O’Neill lifts the lid on the training we give to every new joiner.
I am part of the Central Training team at Ocado Technology, providing guidance and support to all engineers and technicians working at our retail partners' automated Customer Fulfillment Centres (CFCs). We train technicians, engineers, and control engineers from all kinds of backgrounds and with different levels of experience.
We create and maintain a range of training modules, covering everything from the basics of being safe at a CFC, to role-specific specialist training on the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) technologies that form the core of those amazing warehouses.
Basic training includes modules such as health & safety and manual handling, as well as specialised modules unique to our warehouses. For example, at an automated warehouse, you don't necessarily have to be touching something for it to start moving, so it's important everyone on site is always mindful - hence the Automation Awareness module.
"All our Engineers need to know how to look after our bots, talk to our bots, and fix our bots. That's where Bot School comes in..."
We also put people on any required external courses. Controls Engineers might take a Siemens PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) course, or there are several pathways to relevant NVQs, HNCs and so on. We use a central training platform to keep track of all training and candidates right across our international CFCs, whatever team they are in.
If I could talk to mechanicals...
We’re probably most commonly identified with the busy bots that whizz around the top Grid of the massive three-dimensional chess board we call the Hive. They move at up to four metres per second, with just millimetres separating each one as they pass. Each bot communicates wirelessly 11 times a second with the Hive’s wireless air traffic control system - a virtual AI choreographer, directing the bots' carefully coordinated dance.
The bots deliver and retrieve tote storage boxes using a hoist mechanism, then take them away so that the product inside can be picked, ready for delivery. While all this is happening, our bots upload their system log data to the Cloud, to be analysed by smart Machine Learning algorithms that aid preventative maintenance.
Thus, the laptop becomes a bot remote control. The engineer can also interrogate the bot's error logs and get a complete hardware report for every error, detailing the status and position of every part when that error occurred.
A large CFC can have several thousand bots employed, so our operations teams must be meticulous in their ongoing maintenance programmes. They must be able to quickly diagnose and fix any problems to keep the bots moving and make sure our retail partners' customers always get exceptional service.
All our engineers need to know how to look after our bots, talk to our bots, and fix our bots. That's where Bot School comes in...
School of Bot
We have to make sure that all our new Engineers have the basic knowledge and competences required to go into the field and look after the bots. They need to know how to communicate with a bot, they need to know specifics about the technologies inside the bots, how to use the diagnostic tools, and so on.
Our Maintenance Engineers and Technicians are people who can apply their own aptitudes and experience in a wide range of situations. They have backgrounds in mechanical and electrical systems, so what they really need is some good bot-specific theory, and the resources to do what they are good at.
“...Our Engineering Operations teams must be meticulous in their ongoing maintenance programmes. They must be able to quickly diagnose and fix any problems to keep the bots moving…”
Bot School, and all our training initiatives, create a route to success for everybody. If a weaker area is highlighted, then one of our instructors will go through it again. It's quite possible that we didn't teach it right, or that someone learns in a different way. We make sure that everyone understands the materials and is confident with the bots before graduating.
Bot School is actually divided into several schools, with each one dedicated to a specific generation of robot. Then, each school is divided into modules that deal with the full range of bot technologies, such as power, hoist movement, XY movement, networking, communications, and more. We cover all these elements in detail, along with diagnostics and repairs for all these systems.
For example, we have diagnostic software that connects directly with the bots’ onboard Linux-based brain. Using this, the engineer can issue commands to directly control the bot's mechanical and electrical systems, such as telling it to move or operate the hoist, or travel in any direction.
We use all these clues to work out what has gone wrong and how to fix it. We check for patterns in the maintenance log to make sure we're not missing something important, such as a separate issue causing something to fail more than once.
Bot School gives our engineers all of these tools and knowledge resources to help them make informed choices, and keep all the bots happy in their work.
Change your world with us
We have opportunities for talented operations and electro-mechanical technicians at all levels to help keep our smart warehouses running. If you have background in frontline maintenance operations, find you next job here.
The Military Move
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The SecondHands project
Ocado Technology and partners have been pioneering a collaborative robot that can proactively assist humans in maintenance tasks. Dr Graham Deacon describes the amazing The SecondHands project.learn more