Friday’s incident is the second major fire in three years at one of Ocado’s large automated warehouses.
The closure this weekend of its Erith customer fulfillment center, which can process 150,000 orders per week for its retail joint venture with Marks and Spencer, has 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 installation to begin operating in the coming week and thank customers with affected orders for their patience. “
London firefighters said they sent 15 fire engines and 100 firefighters to tackle the blaze, after the 800 workers from the three-story facility were evacuated.
“The blaze was deeply rooted and was a difficult operation,” said firefighters, who took nearly 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 robots on the grid.”
In Ocado’s “beehive” system, more than a thousand robots buzz around a grid, stopping to grab crates of food, then dropping them off for human pickers to pack customer orders.
“The damage is limited to a small section of less than 1% of the network, having been contained by planned fire mitigation measures,” Ocado said. “Aside from the smell of residual smoke, the vast majority of CFCs are in good condition. ”
A robot fire was also blamed for the destruction of the Ocado warehouse in Andover, Hampshire in 2019, which cost the company around £ 110million, excluding insurance coverage, and took more two years to rebuild it.
The reduced capacity at Andover has contributed to Ocado’s difficulty in meeting increased customer demand during Covid-19 lockdowns in the UK, 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 in venture capital funding this year.
The sophistication of Ocado’s robotic warehouses means they can take a long time to build. A second bot fire could also worry potential customers of its Solutions business, which sells its exclusive distribution system to other retailers, including Kroger in the United States 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.