Greener and Leaner: Why Building Zero-Carbon Material Handling Needs Automation With Electric Vehicles

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Autonomous solutions can help the material handling industry become more sustainable.
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Written by Sebastian Nowak

Autonomous solutions can help the material handling industry become more sustainable.

Bringing warehouses up to date

Two years ago, Nike opened 'The Court' a 1.5 million-square-foot distribution center in Belgium. Not only was the site powered entirely by renewables. Its distribution links to canal and rail networks mean it saves around 14,000 truck journeys per year.

The sportswear giant is just one of many firms plotting its own version of a "zero-carbon warehouse". And it's not just multinationals. As an essential part of any supply chain, the environmental impact of warehouse space is increasingly under the spotlight.

But we believe the new breed of warehouses shouldn't just stop there. Greater levels of automation, particularly the use of autonomous vehicles, will make sites more efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable.

Powering up

The logistics industry is ripe for modernization and it's no surprise that warehouses are becoming a major focus. Gigantic depots and fulfillment centers the size of aircraft hangars are not only costly to run, they directly conflict with company goals of becoming carbon neutral.

In Europe, buildings are the single largest energy consumer (they account for 40% of EU energy consumption and more than one third of carbon emissions)1. Making changes to your warehousing space could dramatically alter your company's sustainability profile.

At the top of the shopping list for the modern sustainable warehouse is a greener energy source. These buildings are usually ideal for installing solar panels, with large amounts of roof space. 'The Court', in fact, uses on-site wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and biomass.

Operators are also focused on energy management and insulation. These are all, to a certain degree, low-hanging fruit. Many companies are taking greater steps towards sustainability - embracing the potential for automation and intelligent warehouse management.

Using automation to unlock the environmental benefits

Much of the discussion around automation in warehousing, focuses on how it can save costs. Robots and automated guided vehicles are already well established in industry, making repetitive processes more efficient. But automation also goes hand in hand with sustainability. It can prove the difference between a warehouse that is limiting emissions, to one that's genuinely zero carbon.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a great lever for warehouse operators to reduce their environmental impact. AI-powered storage and retrieval systems, for example, reduce a site's physical footprint and improve energy management. Google, cut the energy consumption of its power-hungry cooling systems for its data centers by 40%, a cost and an environmental saving.

One of the biggest areas of impact automation can have is in developing autonomous onsite transportation. Transport is one of the biggest global CO2 emitters, but inside the warehouse it's something of a hidden cost. Much of the equipment used every day, such as forklifts, or onsite vehicles used to ferry around equipment and materials, still runs on fossil fuels.

Switching these to battery power will cut emissions. But changing up to autonomous transport enables even greater environmental advantages. Routes around a warehouse, or even between distribution sites, can be fine-tuned for maximum efficiency.

One example of where this is already happening, is the TractEasy, the first autonomous tow tractor, which is dedicated to material handling on private sites, including factories, logistics centers and airports. TractEasy's autonomous vehicle technology allows operators to extend the scope of their logistics flow automation. Predictable and reliable, automation allows the operators to identify flows, reducing the surface area of travel and streamlining energy use on site - cutting overall energy demand.

Autonomous and fully driverless TractEasy for cross indoor-outdoor material handling

Going fully sustainable

Of course, sustainability doesn't start and finish with cutting greenhouse gases - it encompasses many other aspects too. The UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (the most comprehensive definition of sustainability) include targets for health and wellbeing, inclusive and sustainable industrialization and making human settlements safe and resilient.

Automation-enabled sustainable warehouses will promote safer and healthier workplaces for employees. More efficient and integrated transport solutions, running on greener power sources, will mean reduced noise pollution and improved air quality. In addition, increased autonomous vehicles should eliminate tasks that compromise employee safety - and enable operators to place the workforce on higher value tasks.

And for operators, there are undoubtedly benefits which make their businesses economically sustainable. Introducing autonomous vehicles to logistics reduces operational costs and indirect costs for losses and damages, and it makes the business less exposed to the risks of labor shortages (especially accessing qualified drivers). Companies pursuing zero-carbon warehouses are making themselves more competitive and resilient.

Rising to the challenge

Demand is growing from end users and shareholders for companies to take action on their carbon footprints. Climate-neutral logistics are no longer an optional extra for industry, they are unavoidable.

Regulations are putting on further pressure. International standards on reducing CO2 and other pollutants, such as Europe's DIN EN 16258, mean firms must consider sustainability of the whole supply chain.

As warehouse operators consider their next move, making the shift to sustainable logistics will bring environmental, economic, and social benefits. Autonomous solutions should take the lead role in making that happen.

1European Commission

Always pushing the boundaries of autonomous driving, Sebastian is helping industries harness the full potential of driverless goods transportation for a broad range of uses and processes. He believes a holistic approach to automation makes it a successful and sustainable game-changer. His focus is on technical, economical and social dimensions of autonomous transport. 

Sebastian Nowak
Product Manager Goods Transportation DACH, EasyMile