Northumberland robotics firm Tharsus is being sued with online grocery giant Ocado in a potentially massive claim over the technology used in the delivery firm’s warehouses.
Norwegian technology company AutoStore said it is suing Tharsus and Ocado in the UK and US over the alleged breach, filing papers at the High Court in London and the International Trade Commission in America.
AutoStore said the order is to bar the companies from manufacturing and selling infringing products and importing them into the US – and says Ocado was even a customer in 2012.
The company is also suing for financial damages, thought to run into the hundreds of millions of pounds.
Tharsus ’ partnership with Ocado is a major part of the company’s recent success, which has seen it won a number of awards – including North East Company of the Year in 2019 – as well as creating hundreds of jobs in the North East.
Tharsus declined to comment, but in a statement to the stock market in response, Ocado said it had not received papers relating to the claims from AutoStore and first became aware of the issue today, Friday October 2.
“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,” the company added.
“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. We will always vigorously protect our intellectual property.”
In the US filing, AutoStore points out that Ocado’s deal with US retailer Kruger to install its robotic smart platforms across 20 warehouses, saw Ocado bank $55m (£42.6m) per site.
The company said it is seeking an order barring Ocado and Tharsus from manufacturing and selling “infringing products and importing them” into the United States.
The filing in the High Court is calling on the courts to block sales of Ocado’s products from the UK too.
Chief executive of Autostore, Karl Johan Lier, said: “Our ownership of the technology at the heart of Ocado’s warehousing system is clear.
“We will not tolerate Ocado’s continued infringement of our intellectual property rights in its effort to boost its growth and attempt to transform itself into a global technology company.”
He explained that his system works with storage bins stacked vertically in a grid and stored in a cubic structure, with the bins retrieved by robots that travel on the top of the structure.
Around 500 installations and 18,000 robots across 30 countries are used by firms including UK supermarket Asda, US retailer Best Buy and German airline Lufthansa. A court in Norway has found that AutoStore is entitled to ownership of its patents covering the robots’ central cavity technology, it added.
Ocado’s technology has been sold around the world, with M&S and Morrisons buying up services in the UK.
Prior to selling its tech services, Ocado struggled to turn a profit due to thin margins of only a few percent on its home delivery business.
Founder Tim Steiner insisted he would continue looking for outside investors to buy the technology – with the Kruger deal marking a turning point, eventually catapulting the firm into the FTSE 100.
The unprofitable grocery division was eventually bought by M&S and turned into a 50/50 joint venture, which offered online food delivery last month for the first time.