Sustainability also applies to people. Thankfully, the days of warehouse workers walking miles carrying heavy loads week in week out are almost behind us. With robots and other material handling solutions, personnel are no longer subjected to this level of manual labour, ensuring a happier, healthier workforce.
While these sustainability goals can be attained, a particular industry challenge illustrates how warehouses can further improve the efficiency of operational processes to reduce environmental impact.
The point of no return
We’ve all indulged in clothes shopping at some point, and many of us choose to do it online. However, while a prospective outfit can be easily tried on at the store, e-commerce customers must do it at home, presenting warehouses with a big sustainability problem: returns.
It is estimated that in the UK, more than a fifth of all clothes bought online every year are returned, while in the US, one logistics company posited that the CO2 cost of returning e-commerce purchases was similar to the output of 3 million cars.
Returns are a big sustainability issue for e-commerce, as they constitute a high volume of products swimming against the stream of the normal shipping process. First, the item needs to travel back to a distribution centre (often different from where it came from) which incurs transport emissions. Then, it is a long, cumbersome manual procedure to identify the product, check the condition and sort it properly. This often requires large numbers of personnel, generating extra CO2 from commuting. If an item can’t be recycled or resold, it ends up in landfill, producing unnecessary waste. Needless to say that in the era of unlimited free returns, all these processes can also create extra costs for sellers.
This is clearly an area for improvement. However, enhancing the efficiency of the process flow offers a solution not just for returns, but any warehouse operation.
Automation equals efficiency
Naturally, automation is one of the main answers to this efficiency challenge, and thankfully, increasing efficiency always has a positive impact on sustainability.
Using the returns example, being able to quickly check products with computer vision systems, transport goods to appropriate areas for resale or recycling with robots, plus spot trends and areas where processes can be improved with analytics software can greatly expedite operations. Furthermore, it requires less personnel to function. By harnessing renewable energy to power automated equipment, warehouse operators can also mitigate the impact of the electricity demand, delivering these efficiency benefits sustainably.
Automating warehouse processes in this manner allows fulfilment and returns to be conducted on a reduced timeframe, within a more compact site, all while minimising emissions, energy consumption and, effectively, lowering the operating costs. This means that sustainability goals can be met at every level of operations. However, choosing the right solutions can also bring additional benefits.
Robots are a critical component of a modern automated warehouse but are complex pieces of equipment that are intensive to produce. Consequently, Prime Vision focuses on reducing the impact of maintaining robots. A repair rather than replace approach helps improve sustainability, but when a robot is irreparable, Prime Vision rescues as many parts as possible to be used as spare components. Good-quality parts are fitted to other robots or used for in-house research – effectively recycling the components. Inspections identify and separate sub-par components, so there is no risk of fitting the robots with inferior parts. Localised repair facilities further ensure that spares and maintenance personnel can reach customers without generating the excessive carbon emissions associated with long distance travel.
Software is another area of focus. Maintenance can be carried out remotely, so nobody needs to drive to site to carry out updates. Prime Vision also continually optimises its software to run more efficiently, which reduces the number of servers required. Expanding on hardware, helping customers to collate facility computing power in an optimal, well monitored space can save additional energy during installation and operation. Prime Vision applies new IT developments too, such as hyper-converged infrastructure. Such cloud-style solutions with high scalability and efficiency can eliminate the need for large quantities of servers on-site, allowing customers to downsize infrastructure while adding the required flexibility.
Prime Vision is dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of its products and operations. A dedicated sustainability team continually assesses carbon footprint, identifying focus areas and actively lowering company’s emissions. Along with its solutions, this ensures that while Prime Vision contributes to improving the sustainability of warehouse operations, like its customers, it is also working on reducing the impact of the overall supply chain.
Image 1: A compact warehouse equipped with solar panels, modern insulation, and located in an optimal area for local deliveries can greatly reduce the carbon footprint of operations.
Image 2: Prime Vision focuses on sustainable practices of recycling robot parts and using them for in-house research.
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