Climate change has been at the forefront of discussion for some years now, and not without reason. But the recent COP27 summit has revitalised talk around reducing emissions, and the urgent need to change the way we live, work and do business.
Warehousing and logistics are not immune from this, particularly with the inexorable growth of online shopping and international shipping. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to make warehouses more eco-friendly – saving yourself money at the same time as saving the planet.
Use a modern WMS
Modern warehouses aren’t closed systems. A warehouse in the digital age has to embrace technology, and harness its ability to track and organise. While there are individual systems and devices that you can deploy to make warehouses more efficient, the most transformative – and future-proof – is to invest in a modern WMS.
A warehouse management system (WMS) is a piece of software that fulfils multiple roles, and serves multiple purposes. Depending on the devices connected to it – and the data you feed it – it can not only ease the burden on your employees, but massively increase efficiency in a variety of areas, from optimising storage to managing stock.
One example would be combining portable devices with a WMS to help find pallets more quickly, decreasing the travel distance of warehouse vehicles. Another would be automatically monitoring stock, reducing waste from spoilage and making your ordering more accurate. It could even monitor and manage temperatures through connected systems – all efficiency savings that could have a positive environmental impact.
Use recyclable packaging
Packaging is likely to make up the bulk of your warehouse waste, so it makes sense to try and reduce how much you use, as well as how much you throw away. An obvious choice is corrugated cardboard, the vast majority of which now comes from sustainable forests. New methods increasingly allow for these cardboards to be reinforced without compromising their recyclability, while reassessing your handling methods can prevent unnecessary damage.
Another aspect of packaging is packing materials. We’ve all received huge boxes from online deliveries that contain one tiny item and a huge number of packing peanuts or air bags. The former in particular is an environmental menace, and should be avoided where at all possible. An easy way to do this is to simply ensure the packaging matches the size of the item, and that whatever packaging you use around or in the box is as sustainable as possible.
Using recyclable packaging is one thing, but you also need the infrastructure to be able to recycle it. A system of colour-coded bins should help you to sort recyclable materials into different streams, leading to fewer recyclables ending up in landfill. As well as finding a waste collector that can handle these effectively, you should also look at positioning these bins as effectively as possible, so that they’re never far from where they’re needed.
Deploy high density racking
Inefficiencies in your racking design can cause errors in storage, slow down storage and retrieval, and cause traffic to build up around your warehouse. All of these factors have the propensity to cause delays and damage to goods and the racking itself – all of which can itself cause wasted resources, and negatively impact on the environment.
By redesigning your warehouse storage around a high density racking solution, you can increase your storage capacity and improve your layout. Depending on the high density racking you opt for, you could as much as double your storage capacity, or half your storage footprint. Moreover, you could completely change the way you store and retrieve pallets or pick from them.
The process of changing to a high density racking system gives you the opportunity to reassess your design, improving the flow of traffic and making certain goods or pallets more accessible. By configuring your racking for the items you’re currently storing – and fitting more into less space – you could significantly reduce travel distances. A multi-tier system could even occupy unused headroom, and produce savings in terms of heating or cooling.
Use electric vehicles
Similar to electric cars or trucks, electric forklifts have always been seen as an inferior solution. Low battery capacities, less power and reliability issues have previously hampered the widespread use of electric forklifts and other warehouse equipment. But like their roadfaring counterparts, electric forklifts have become not just a useful option in and around warehouses, but the option of choice.
Aside from their environmental impact, the major benefit of electric vehicles in warehouses is the lack of pollution. An electric motor means no diesel fumes polluting the air, and negatively affecting both the health and the efficiency of warehouse operatives. But increasingly, hybrid electric vehicles are finding a role both in and outside of the warehouse, and passing between the two.
Weather-proofing and more powerful engines are allowing them to traverse outdoor terrain, and more powerful lifts (and new designs) are allowing them to carry heavier loads. Improvements in battery design have also increased capacities and decreased charge times, removing one of the last remaining complaints about electric vehicles. Traditional forklifts may always have a role, but there are fewer excuses for not switching over.
Optimise through data analysis
While the primary use of a WMS is to assist in the management of your warehouse, it also has a role to play in analysis and planning. The huge amount of data typically collected by sensors and inputted by operatives gives you a more complete picture of how your warehouse works: where goods go, where people travel, and where the bottlenecks in your current processes may be.
Data analysis tools built into many modern warehouse management systems can help to assess any impediments in the storage or fulfilment process, and give you the proof and impetus to make changes. Once again, each minor inefficiency revealed within the data is an opportunity to optimise your processes, and make changes that save time, money and emissions.
The availability of this data could even lead to more drastic changes. The use of a WMS to assess efficiency could allow you to integrate new ways of working, and even new things to do the work. Robots and autonomous vehicles are increasingly finding a home in even smaller warehouses, performing simple tasks more efficiently than human operatives, or helping them in their work. Each one of these adds more data, giving you more to work with, and potentially saving more emissions compared to other vehicles.
Creating an eco-friendly warehouse can be an iterative process or an overhaul, but even the smallest change will have a ripple effect. Not only will you be having a positive impact on the environment, but by taking the problem seriously, you’ll be encouraging others to do the same – transitioning the industry towards a more sustainable future.
Author bio: This post was written by James Beale, Operations Manager at Invicta Racking. With more than 30 years of experience designing, installing and inspecting high density pallet racking systems, Invicta Racking has built a legacy of trust with some of the world’s most prestigious companies.