A major upgrade to RS Group’s DC in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, features green building design elements including solar power and green/seeded roof. The expansion also positions more products closer to customers to gain transportation efficiencies.
Green and sustainable warehouse operations can happen by small measures. The biggest impacts, though, tend to come from longer-term plans that encompass the whole DC network, and, from there, design and deploy fulfillment centers that maximize energy savings within the four walls through various means, including at the warehouse automation level. 3d Pallet Shuttle System
Just consider how RS Group’s newly upgraded DC in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, went about going green and the multiple energy saving approaches it tapped. RS Group, a major global supplier of electronics and maintenance products whose brands include RS, doubled the site’s capacity and brought in more automation to improve operational and environmental efficiencies.
The extended state-of-the-art DC totals 37,600 square meters (about 405,000 square feet) and accommodates a range of more than 450,000 products—three times greater than historic levels with a throughput of lines filled per day from 15,000 to 35,000. In deciding to expand the DC to this level as part of its DC network strategy, RS was out to future-proof its business by ensuring more products were positioned closer to customers.
The expansion began in June 2019 and was completed in September 2021. The upgraded DC incorporates green building such as a large solar installation on its roof. Within the four walls, an automated shuttle system provides high-density storage and order processing functionality.
Such automated storage and picking solutions contribute to energy savings by supporting high throughput in a relatively small space. The Dematic shuttle system at Bad Hersfeld has 330 shuttle robots, uses 40 kilometers of power rails, and has 160 AC motors on supporting roller conveyor.
“Automatic storage, retrieval and packaging systems have been installed to help reduce our carbon footprint and improve our environmental performance,” says Andrea Barrett, vice president of social responsibility and sustainability for RS Group. “We have changed the way we work by moving from a person-to-goods to a goods-to-person operation, driven by a computerized shuttle system. Pickers will place articles directly into cartons, and automated carton erection, lidding, document insertion and labeling will make this process highly efficient.”
The solar power system has the capacity to power the entire DC during the summer, with 2,380 solar panels totaling 6,000 square meters for an output of 750kW of green photo voltaic electricity.
In 2021/2022, this system produced 22% of the site’s electricity. The DC also has efficient LED lighting throughout. The DC’s roof, in addition to holding solar panels, features a grass-seeded surface to manage water run-off.
Overall, says Barrett, the expanded green DC is seen as a strategic project carrying both sustainability and customer service benefits. “The extended state-of-the-art DC will help future-proof our business by ensuring our products are positioned closer to our customers, which will reduce our transport emissions by minimizing the distances our products travel and improve speed of delivery and reliability,” says Barrett.
The days of manual warehouses with wide aisles for pedestrian and lift truck traffic are by no means behind us, but operations are changing. Many facilities now use some form of fixed automation systems or mobile robotics, all of which consume energy.
Compared to the days when equipment in most DCs consisted of rack, shelving and manual order picking, many DCs consume substantial amounts of energy to run automated materials handling systems. This presents an opportunity for energy savings, in part by choosing systems with energy-saving features and also by using software to help manage systems for efficiency.
Perhaps the most notable strategy is to anchor a DC network with one or more automated facilities to make use of automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) to maximize throughput in minimal space. The high-density AS/RS approach translates into energy savings of roughly 20% versus a more conventional DC, says Timo Landener, head of innovation with Swisslog, a provider of warehouse automation systems and software.
“If you can have a smaller space, that through dense storage and a high utilization of the available cube that equals or exceeds the throughput of a larger conventional warehouse, that means you have less space to light and heat, or cool,” says Landener. “That is a major advantage of high-density automated storage, especially for cold storage and freezer applications.”
Some AS/RS solutions make use of regenerative braking in their mechatronics design to reduce energy consumed from the grid.
A second way warehouse management system (WMS) software and integrated automation can reduce the energy consumption of a DC is to manage order fulfillment tasks to reduce the distance totes, or pallets, have to travel within the four walls. This involves WMS functionality to manage functions like order releasing and batching of work, so the automation doesn’t have to “travel” any more physical distance than necessary to hit service levels.
“Software can help reduce intralogistics distances that need to happen in a warehouse,” says Landener. “The algorithms seek to minimize distance, so that is another way to reduce the energy supply consumed by an operation.”
Some AS/RS solutions are designed so the braking of automation elements like cranes are tapped for regenerative energy, adds Landener. That energy can be harvested to reduce energy consumption from the grid. The software for an AS/RS can also look for opportunities to retrieve, replenish or otherwise handle more materials with each movement or path of a crane or carrier to avoid empty movements.
“When the situation is not so time critical, your systems can look for ways to save energy,” Landener says.
Landener adds that it is still early days in terms of seeing advanced energy reduction logic driving warehouse automation systems on a daily basis. Typically, the most critical priorities are hitting shipment pickup times and service levels, but more companies are asking about how to establish energy efficient warehouse automation solutions, especially in Europe, where high energy prices are exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.
A shuttle system with more than 300 robotic carriers allows the RS Group’s expanded Bad Hersfeld DC to store and process more than three times the goods the site historically held—and in an energy-efficient footprint.
“There are regional differences, but when it comes to warehouse automation, energy efficiency is getting closer attention, and the interest in it has gone up exponentially in the last several months,” Landener says. “Today, when we talk about new installations with our customers, energy efficiency is one of first questions we have to answer. They want to know what the energy demand will be for the various technologies we have.”
Most warehouse control systems (WCS) and other software used to monitor automation is mainly concerned with monitoring how the system functions in terms of material flow control, uptime, run rates of the equipment and throughput metrics.
Facilities can use electrical submetering to see how much energy a piece of materials handling equipment is consuming, but traditional WCS is more concerned about moving goods and ensuring uptime, rather than tweaking how a system runs to save energy.
Analytics software that integrates with data from WCS, or other automation controls, however, could be used to monitor energy consumed by warehouse automation and begin to manage how systems run with energy efficiency in mind. Some solution providers are doing this with a separate analytics software layer, rather than adding energy reporting to a WCS or warehouse execution system (WES).
For example, warehouse automation provider KNAPP, in its redPILOT organization, offers warehouse analytics aimed at improving resource management, productivity and uptime. Energy consumption data can be analyzed with the redPILOT software and brought into the dashboarding it provides, says Kevin Reader, vice president of marketing for KNAPP North America.
“There is a key element of savings associated with sustainability, and maximizing savings is one of the main goals of redPILOT’s solution, as part of being more efficient with automation and with labor as part of order fulfillment,” says Reader.
The redPILOT software is flexible enough to tap into multiple sources of data, including energy, though it also ties into systems like WCS, WMS and labor management system (LMS) software to get a more complete picture of what will be most efficient overall, adds Reader.
“You could certainly look at energy consumption and compare energy use for one type of automation versus another, or one facility to another,” says Reader.
Honeywell, in its Honeywell Connected Enterprise organization, recently launched enhanced functions for its Honeywell “Forge” analytics and enterprise performance management solution set. Forge is separate from Honeywell’s WCS and WES software, but it can tap into data from these and other vendor’s warehouse automation systems to improve metrics around critical factors like uptime, throughput and energy efficiency.
As more DCs put automation in place, more energy is used, making it important to monitor current energy consumption and machine health, says Akash Jain, general manager of Connected Warehouse for Honeywell.
“As we monitor the assets inside a warehouse, we are also monitoring the unplanned downtime that we are able to save for our clients,” Jain says. “Saving unplanned downtime results in increased throughput making the warehouses more efficient.”
Multiplied across a DC network, improved uptime using predictive analytics can have a major sustainability benefit if it can avoid the need for more capacity, space or systems by ensuring the automation in place is as effective as possible.
“Increased throughput with an enterprise performance management solution can have a network effect for our enterprise clients with multiple warehouses,” says Jain. “If a retailer or e-commerce player has dozens of warehouses, and if we were to increase the throughput of a warehouse by 3% to 5%, we could increase the throughput of the network of warehouses by more than 100%. This could cause a retailer to decide not to build an additional warehouse. Building an additional warehouse can cost $300 million to $500 million. Not only can we help avoid these capital expenditures, but from a sustainability perspective, we would help them avoid an increase in their carbon footprint by building an additional warehouse.”
Importantly, adds Jain, analytics and dashboarding should be vendor and system agnostic, and able to tap into data streams from multiple types of automation, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) or machine controls. He says this is easier using open protocols such as OPC-UA or OPC-DA.
“We are able to gather the data, analyze it, use AI/ML algorithms on top of it, and then able to decipher how much energy the systems are using and provide insights in the form of dashboards,” Jain says.
Another way DCs can make carbon reduction gains is by examining how the operation charges or refuels lift trucks. Lithium batteries, for example, are more energy efficient to charge compared with conventional lead-acid batteries. Meanwhile, hydrogen fuel cell lift trucks can run on “green” hydrogen produced from electricity generated by renewable energy sources like hydro, solar and wind.
Additionally, DCs with lift truck fleets may opt for “power by the hour” or other energy-as-a-service programs under which the charging needs for the lift truck fleet are conducted for the site by an equipment dealer or a motive power services provider.
Such business models move the management of charger infrastructure and battery maintenance to the service provider under a monthly fee structure, typically with some detailed insight into energy consumption and a predictable spend level on charging.
Given the rapid uptake for autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), as well as fully autonomous lift trucks, additional mobile assets in DCs consume energy and need charging. In most cases, AMR vendors provide needed chargers, while AMR vendors’ software will govern the opportunity charging and provide insight into use trends. For some types of AMRs, pick path or route optimization algorithms can look to lessen distance traveled, primarily to enhance throughput, but with the side benefit of energy efficiency.
The bigger picture is that establishing a green warehouse is no longer just about green building design. As fulfillment centers become more asset intensive, the energy efficiency of the automation—the equipment in the building that stores, picks, conveys and gets goods ready for shipment—is becoming a growing opportunity to create a more sustainable operation.
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