Greener Warehouses… greener still

I wrote recently that if you keep looking for efficiencies, you’ll keep finding them, and that certainly appears to be true. No sooner had I published my piece on sustainable warehousing than new ideas started turning up. Some were a result of correspondence with Professor Dave Jessop; other tips come from Inbound Logistics Magazine (see here and here), from a World Bank project report on warehousing for the food supply, and from a number of other sources.

Here we go again, with another ten ways to ‘green’ your warehouse operations…

11. Insulate

I mentioned making sure that doors and windows fit well, but there’s a lot more to retaining heat. Fit appropriate insulation, the professor advises, and automatic door-closing mechanisms too; “Create clear procedures for opening and closing loading dock doors” says Inbound Logistics Magazine. In a cold climate, you’re going to save a small fortune – and that means you’re reducing your contribution to climate change, too.

12. Noise is Pollution, Too

Compared to something like climate change, noise pollution might seem like a momentary nuisance, but noise pollution can cause stress, sleep disturbances, high blood pressure, hearing loss and other problems. It also has negative effects on wildlife.

In order to avoid being a bad neighbour, equipment can be selected for its lower noise output, and machinery such as generators or fans can be fitted with enclosures, vibration isolators or other silencers. The hours of operation for specific pieces of equipment might also be curtailed. Longer-term, businesses might choose to locate noisy equipment as far as possible from communities.

Measuring the noise level

Noise pollution: are you a good neighbour?

Another significant contributor to noise comes from transportation, which brings us to…

13. Traffic Routing

You may be able to choose routes or schedules to reduce the impact of warehouse operations on the local community. Your vehicles may pose a problem in terms of their contribution to traffic congestion, influence on air quality, or noise. If peak travel times can be avoided, so much the better.

14. Right First Time is Greener

We’ve all done it; you make a mistake, and you have to work twice as hard to make good. It’s commendable that you don’t let your customer down, of course, but expediting usually isn’t sustainable. Whenever you have to fast-track an order because of a problem, that typically involves extra vehicle movements, partial loads, and perhaps the use of carbon-intensive transport modes such as airfreight.

Inbound Logistics Magazine warns that a low-inventory strategy might be the cause of increased reliance on less efficient transport modes. ‘Lean’ is all very well, but if low stock levels frequently leave you racing to make good, it’s likely your ‘green’ performance will suffer.

15. Build in Health and Safety

It goes without saying that accidents are neither profitable, nor conducive to on-time delivery. Like any working environment, you will need to ensure health through appropriate lighting, a clean eating area, good drinking water, clean restrooms, fair shift patterns, pest control, emergency egress, fire detection and suppression equipment, etc. – but you will also face a number of challenges and responsibilities that are unique to warehousing, such as complying with any requirements caused by the storage of hazardous materials. An excellent guide for health and safety in warehousing and storage operations comes from the Health and Safety Executive. (A free download is available.)

16. Efficient Layout and Routing

If your warehouse uses electric forklifts, you already own that rarest of things: the ‘Zero Emissions Vehicle’. Of course, it’s only zero emissions at the point of use… the electric power comes with a carbon footprint. Still, if it’s charged at night and used during the day, it contributes to load balancing for the power company, and they’ll probably be selling you cheap electricity as a result. No usage comes entirely free of environmental consequences, however, so it makes sense to eliminate surplus movements in picking and putaway. “Use product slotting optimization programs to reduce the distances equipment has to travel within your facility,” says Internal Logistics Magazine, “then watch your energy bills decline accordingly.”

The electric forklift. It’s like driving a Nissan Leaf... with spikes at the front.

The electric forklift. It’s basically like driving a Nissan ‘Leaf’, only with spikes at the front.

Rather than just using software to optimise picking and putaway, you might want to redesign the layout of the warehouse itself, in effect to make the system better rather than just trying to drive it better. If you have the opportunity to construct your own warehouse, with appropriate equipment, you might manage a better mix of access space and storage space, and be able to store just as much stock while heating, lighting and securing a smaller overall volume.

17. Climate Change Risk Mitigation

Be aware that your operations may be disrupted by extreme weather events – and that these are becoming more common as a result of climate change. Don’t build or rent a warehouse on a flood plain, or you might come to regret it. If assuming that floods and the like will happen doesn’t sound like a terribly ‘green’ way to do business, just think about all the environmental harm you’d cause by writing off a warehouse full of stock.

The landscaping of your grounds can reduce the impact of flooding; expanses of tarmac or concrete, and even lawns, largely fail to absorb rainfall, which means that your stormwater runoff might contribute to a flood. Gravel borders, soakaways and similar features allow rainfall to recharge groundwater supplies, which is infinitely preferable to letting it become runoff.

18. Tidy Up!

“Allocating an hour or two per week, or even per month, to cleaning the warehouse can lead to amazing improvements in your efficiency. You never know what missing or misplaced orders you might find,” says Lee House, Vice President at IBIS, Inc. Not only will an orderly warehouse improve on-time delivery performance without the need for costly expediting, but discovering previously ‘lost’ items means they won’t need to be re-ordered, and it frees up space for more conventional usage. An orderly warehouse should also be a healthier, safer working environment.

Indiana Jones taught us just how easy it can be to lose stuff in a big warehouse. (Lucasfilm)

Back in 1981, Indiana Jones showed us just how easy it can be to lose stuff in a big warehouse. (Lucasfilm)

19. Don’t Try to be Too Clever

Invest with care. Prof Jessop cautions that systems should not be used if they are “too clever, smart and expensive”, although automation can be pursued where it is cost-effective. There is a smorgasbord of different warehouse automation solutions available, at different levels of complexity and cost, from pick to light systems right up to automated retrieval… but they should be selected with care. Obviously, an over-specified solution will be needlessly expensive, and will likely consume more resources in its construction and operation.

20. Remember Reverse Logistics

From time to time, you’re going to get products back, for a variety of reasons. One reason is the dreaded ‘buyer’s remorse’. Alternatively, you might be offering customers a trade-in deal, or a product might come back because the customer found it to be faulty. If you don’t have a good strategy for passing on these products, they’re going to start cluttering up your warehouse, yet many must be thought of as a “batch of one” and it isn’t always easy to send them back ‘upstream’, against the normal flow of material. Some products will come back with damaged packaging, inadequate documentation, damage, missing parts or other problems (I’ve written before about the difficulties caused by the unknown state of returned products) and it’s hard to see these products as an asset, yet they could be. You might be able to restore them to as-new condition, or develop a secondary market for them. Failing that, you could at least give them away. Otherwise, you’re going to end up paying to send them to landfill, and everybody loses.

Final thought

I’m not kidding myself; no doubt there will be more things that you can do to make your warehouse operations sustainable… but my “starter for ten” already has twenty points, and people are going to keep on finding efficiencies.

Add some more experiences or ideas of your own in the comments, perhaps?

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