At a 350,000 square feet warehouse in Erith, south-east London, a small army of Wall-e like robots dutifully go about their business, picking up and carefully depositing the orders of 150,000 Ocado customers a week. Their movements – algorithmically designed to be the most efficient – see them wander purposely forwards, backwards and sideways, swarming, but never touching, around grids of thousands of stacked products. It’s an image of a future that is already here – where robots do what people used to do. And do it exceedingly well.
The bots are the creation of 750-staff strong robotics pioneer, Tharsus Group – a business that is today about as far removed from what boss Brian Palmer says was “a proper back-street metal fabrication business” as it’s arguably possible to be. “Twenty years ago we were a sheet metal business,” he recalls, “nothing more nothing less. We had a few big clients like BT and Marconi, and we decided to take a risk in 2008 by buying an outdoor advertising business that required software and motors and machinery. This fell flat on its face in the credit crunch, but born from this – plus some success in rolling out broadband – was the idea that we could become a design and manufacturing business for others.”
The rest, as they say is history. Built on Palmer's belief that technology businesses are based on just four things - motors, drivers, sensors and control boards - diversification was the natural next stage. Now the business has revenues of £90 million, and, despite the pandemic, has seen its operating profit jump 80% from £2.5m to £4.6m thanks to partnerships with Ocado, as well as other fulfillment companies like DHL muscling in on what it sees as the benefits of a robotics future.