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Sustainability: Green trends growing in materials handling

Going green isn’t going away: It’s a permanent and increasingly important part of the global business landscape—and that includes materials handling.
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Solar panels on the roof of States’ warehouse facility in Arizona generate enough energy to power the facility and recharge its electric lift truck batteries.

By Lorie King Rogers, Associate Editor
November 01, 2011

Out with the old
Upgrading and replacing old conveyor components is an effective energy-saving strategy. Existing conveyor can be upgraded to low-voltage motor driven roller conveyor with multiple speed settings and multiple settings for start up. Slower speeds and soft start control further reduce energy usage.

A traditional pulley motor assembly can be replaced with an energy efficient motorized pulley (drum motor) that reduces energy usage, resulting in 96% efficiency compared to 30%.

Modernizing some of your facility’s sortation equipment can also result in an energy savings. “There are upgrade kits available that allow the sorter to operate using less energy,” says Ruehrdanz.  “For example, if the mechanical portion of a sliding shoe sorter is worn out, it can be upgraded.  New components are incorporated that allow the sorter to use less energy.”

Modular and robotic conveyance solutions

Changes and improvements to equipment can also lead to ancillary savings in areas, like shipping resources and lighting expenses.

For example, modular conveyor systems, which are lighter than the old metal variety, ship partially assembled in a box, which reduces freight costs and transportation emissions. These systems not only add flexibility, they subtract cost and emissions into the atmosphere.

For more flexibility and savings, look to mobile fulfillment systems like those recently installed at the new 1.2-million-square-foot Gold LEED designated Crate and Barrel facility in Tracy, Calif. These mobile robotic goods-to-person product movers have not only resulted in a cleaner, quieter working environment, they have reduced energy consumption and lowered the light bill. 

“From a sustainability standpoint, the systems creates a more desirable work environment that’s not as loud and dirty,” says John Ling, Crate and Barrel’s vice president of supply chain management and logistics. “From a power perspective, the mobile pods bring product to pickers so the storage area doesn’t have to be lit, which saves on energy.”

Ling says it’s hard to estimate the precise savings, however, the overall improvement is significant when looking at the reduction in the amount of equipment and motors from the old conveyance system and the opportunity provided to use less lighting.

Pallets, packaging and reusables
Less is more, and that includes weight. While pallets are responsible for carrying the weight of our products around the world, they shouldn’t contribute to the weight of shipping these products.

Pallets manufactured from wood by-products are about 60% lighter than the conventional hardwood type, so transportation, energy and handling costs can be reduced. 

Manufacturing pallets from wood by-products also prevent millions of pounds of scrap wood from landing in a landfill every year. 

Another way to keep material from going to the landfill is to use returnables and reusables. Reusable plastic bulk containers can save companies with a large shipping infrastructure in many industries millions of dollars annually, as well as help keep tons of cardboard out of the waste stream.

“Returnables make sense, especially in a closed loop system where product is traveling a fairly short distance,” says Bill McMahon, who is responsible for sales and marketing at ORBIS. Automotive manufacturing is a good example. At one point in time, for every car manufactured, 90 pounds of waste went into the landfill. Today, McMahon says, that number is almost zero because of reusables.

“More and more companies are demanding a lean, sustainable, cost-effective solution to replace cardboard in their operations,” says Mike Thomas, new product development manager for Buckhorn.

As a result, new reusable container designs and materials are being offered. For example, one collapsible container, which is constructed of material that is 30% lighter than traditional plastic, features an integrated pallet and lid system, meaning the pallet can be used as the lid when storing product. Then it folds flat and fits within its own footprint, creating a 5:1 return ratio, which helps to reduce transport costs.

But, if your packaging is a puzzle, Thomas recommends conducting a site visit for a general audit of your operation and packaging systems. “Many companies in warehousing and distribution carry a lot of different types of containers, which can be inefficient,” he says.  The idea is to consider all different types of containers and minimize what you have on hand, since there are efficiencies associated with minimizing doing more with less.

Tracking the green footprint
Whether your company has already gone green, or is still considering adopting green practices, it’s important to establish a baseline performance and track your results. In July 2011, the IWLA introduced the industry’s first metric-driven, facility-output-based sustainable logistics program for warehouse operations in North America, called the Sustainable Logistics Initiative (SLI). SLI is an online tool that enables participating companies to report, track and improve upon their green status.

Linda Hothem, IWLA chairman and CEO of Pacific American Group, says that when she joined the board of the IWLA, she realized that the industry didn’t have the same tools and programs available as other industries to measure its carbon footprint. “We needed to establish metrics to benchmark and improve upon. The data collected through SLI will inform our industry and our customers on the best and most efficient means to improve sustainable warehouse practices,” Hothem says.

Companies participating in SLI—third-party logistics providers—supply facility data and measure performance in three areas of responsibility: environmental, social and economical. They receive a SLI certificate as proof of participation then, as metrics improve, facilities can achieve silver, gold or platinum status in the program.

The entire process is verified by a neutral party, The Sustainable Supply Chain Foundation (SSCF). The SSCF is the organization tapped by IWLA to be the third-party verification source for the IWLA Sustainable Logistics Initiative.

About the Author

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Lorie King Rogers
Associate Editor

Lorie King Rogers, associate editor, joined Modern in 2009 after working as a freelance writer for the Casebook issue and show daily at tradeshows. A graduate of Emerson College, she has also worked as an editor on Stock Car Racing Magazine.


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