Cause of Ocado Fire Highlights Concerns About Automated Warehouses

The Feb. 5 fire that completely gutted an automated Ocado grocery fulfillment center in the UK was caused by a failure in an “ambient grid” storing food at room temperature, raising concerns about what happens in these types of facilities when disaster strikes, according to a Bloomberg report.

The fire however has not deterred Ocado’s partners like Kroger in the U.S. and Marks & Spencer in the UK, who are moving full steam ahead with plans to implement its advanced order fulfillment automation technology. Kroger took a 5% stake in Ocado last year and is partnering with to eventually build 20 automated facilities in the U.S., with the first planned for Cincinnati by 2021.

“We are not concerned that there is a fundamental issue with the design,” Ocado CEO Tim Steiner told Bloomberg. “Will we learn lessons from it? Of course we will. We always learn lessons from our mistakes. Can we improve things and make sure things are safer in the future? Yes. But there is no issue there.”

Because of the location of the UK fire high in the Ocado fulfillment center, it was difficult to reach and blazed for three days, completing gutting the multi-million-dollar facility and setting the company’s production back considerably.

“There is a physical, configurational challenge about some of these places if something goes wrong,” Jonathan Reynolds, academic director of the Oxford Institute of Retail Management told Bloomberg. “There’s a gradual growth in understanding the implications of automation.”

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