Dive Brief:

  • Autostore, a Norwegian developer of robotic systems that assemble grocery orders, has accused fellow online grocery tech company Ocado of violating patents for storage and retrieval technology used in automated e-commerce fulfillment centers, according to a press release.
  • In lawsuits filed in the United States and the United Kingdom, AutoStore seeks court orders to prevent Ocado and partner Tharsus Group from manufacturing and selling equipment that it claims infringes on its patents and bringing it into the United States, as well as financial damages. Ocado said in response that it is looking into whether AutoStore has violated its patents.
  • The technology Ocado is accused of improperly using is at the heart of the automated fulfillment centers the company is building for Kroger, which is also an investor in the company, as well as international retailers like Sobeys and Aeon.

​Dive Insight:

Ocado has made a name for itself by developing vast, robot-filled retail-fulfillment warehouses, which it uses to run its online grocery business in the United Kingdom and has signed contracts to provide to other food retailers, like Kroger. The company has wowed investors and is ranked among the most valuable retailers in the U.K. despite accounting for only a fraction of the country’s grocery market.

According to AutoStore, the fleets of rolling robots that travel atop grids of bins used to store groceries in the warehouses Ocado builds violate patents that belong to AutoStore, and the Norwegian firm has vowed to stop Ocado from continuing to use the technology. According to AutoStore, Ocado purchased technology from it starting in 2012 and uses AutoStore’s intellectual property as the heart of its approach to automated fulfillment, which is known as the Ocado Smart Platform.

The bad blood between Ocago and AutoStore could spill over into Kroger’s planned deployment of more than 20 automated consumer fulfillment centers across the United States to fill online grocery orders. Ocado has an exclusive arrangement with Kroger to build the facilities, the first of which is scheduled to open in Monroe, Ohio, in early 2021.

In April, Ocado completed construction of its first customer fulfillment center in North America for Canadian grocer Sobeys.

Kroger hopes to set itself apart from other grocers with the robotic fulfillment centers it has engaged Ocado to build. The facilities, which can be upwards of 300,000 square feet in size and are intended to serve customers across relatively broad areas, differ from micro-fulfillment, a concept that involves much smaller facilities located closer to the customers they serve. AutoStore recently struck a deal with Texas grocer H-E-B to build micro-fulfillment centers.

Ocado responded to AutoStore’s announcement about its legal offensive with a brief statement saying that it had not been formally notified about AutoStore’s accusation. “Ocado confirms it has not received any papers in relation to these claims and this is the first we have heard of this new claim. We are not aware of any infringement of any valid Autostore rights and of course we will investigate any claims once we receive further details,” Ocado said.

Ocado also pushed back on AutoStore by suggesting that it might take action against its rival. “We have multiple patents protecting the use of our systems in grocery and we are investigating whether Autostore has, or intends to infringe those patents,” Ocado said in the statement. “We will always vigorously protect our intellectual property.”

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