Roads Paved With Green

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Last year’s buzz is this year’s action item. All the talk about embracing green initiatives started everyone thinking, but a convergence of events is pushing companies into adoption. Rising fuel costs and the economic slump are key drivers, but saving the environment has grown beyond a politically correct concept to become a prevailing mind-set. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the necessary thing to do.

Go Green, Save Green: Sustainable Supply Chain Improvements, a recent Web conference hosted by the Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA), Charlotte, N.C., highlighted opportunities where retailers could reduce energy consumption and costs in two critical areas—inside a distribution center (DC) and in transportation.

“The greatest potential for improvements,” suggested Kenneth Raehrdanz, distribution and warehousing industry manager for Dematic Corp., “is in the more than 600,000 warehouses and DCs already in existence in the U.S. Retrofitting existing systems offers the biggest opportunities to turn warehouses into ‘greenhouses.’”

Quipping that he was doing his part to be green by turning out his office lights during the conference, Raehrdanz said there are green savings to be found inside DCs in storing, staging and lighting; in conveying and sorting processes; and in the physical layout of the warehouse.

For instance, energy usage can be reduced significantly by turning off the lights when there is no activity in an area, which is easily accomplished through the installation of motion-activated lighting systems, and by stopping conveyors when product is not being moved. Alternatively, conveyors might be slowed to create savings without sacrificing throughput.

“In the area of warehouse-control software, you can use mechanization and optimization strategies to work smarter and compress throughput to one shift,” noted Raehrdanz.

By installing a “run-on-demand” solution, the DC can shut down or put a system into sleep mode rather than moving product at top speed every shift. In one case study, Raehrdanz said energy consumption was reduced more than 20% by shifting to the run-on-demand model. A side benefit of this model was less wear on the equipment, essentially extending the life of a capital investment.

In the area of storing and staging, particularly in cold-storage or freezer areas, Raehrdanz reported that converting to high-density storage has cut energy consumption in half for some DCs. Additionally, the use of natural light and brightly colored paint schemes that reflect light have also contributed to improved efficiencies.

Picking processes may contribute to improvements as well. For instance, light-directed, radio-frequency or voice-directed systems are more efficient and more environmentally friendly than paper-based operations. Finally, semi- or fully automated system designs typically enable the warehouse footprint to be smaller, which in and of itself reduces energy consumption because fewer lights are required and fork trucks typically travel shorter distances.

On the transportation side, Erv Bluemner, VP of transportation product strategy for RedPrairie Corp., Waukesha, Wis., reminded listeners that “any reductions in fuel consumption create real opportunities to improve the bottom line.”

For instance, excessive engine-idle time burns as much as one gallon of fuel per hour.

Fuel-saving strategies that were discussed included installing systems to monitor idle time, implementing route-optimization tools and establishing governors on engines to ensure that they run in the desired “sweet spot.”

Bluemner noted that software tools can be leveraged to gain transportation efficiencies, such as creating shipment profiles that can be translated into route consolidation and a reduction in empty back-haul miles.

“Using consolidation algorithms we can align loads for more efficient routing,” he said. “Specifically with back-haul miles, postponement strategies can identify shipments that might be delayed a day to piggyback onto another route and save mileage.”

Bluemner recommended reviewing existing fleets to update aging equipment with EPA-compliant engine modifications. Improvements may also be realized by taking steps as simple as basic engine maintenance, installing a different grade of tires, or adding devices to reduce wind resistance on tractors.

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