19 Aug 2022

Automating for a sustainable future

Intralogistics

Wouter Satijn, Sales Director, Joloda Hydraroll, explains how companies that operate in the (intra)logistics sector need to create joined-up sustainability strategies that encompass people, cost reduction and improving environmental standing for a sustainable future.

The new global economic reality, combined with an unprecedented labour shortage, is encouraging companies to reconsider sustainability strategies. Until recently, sustainability has been synonymous with environmental goals for many businesses and, as a result, treated as an add on to corporate strategy. Sustainability can no longer be considered in isolation.

Sustainability in its true sense has always encompassed three core strands: social (people), environment and economic. Failure to consider the broader implications of business decisions is compromising long-term success. Why is one part of the business evaluating the environmental benefits of moving to battery-powered forklift trucks, when HR is finding it impossible to recruit forklift drivers? That, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to access the required power in an overstretched grid. Why is the power of automation being explored, without considering how it can drastically reduce employee risk and improve retention?

Redirecting sustainable goals

The legislative push for a more sustainable economy is affecting business decisions globally. In Holland, new build warehouses and distribution centres must be energy self-supporting to receive planning permission. In Mexico, a ban on driving lorries through built-up areas during certain times of day is improving the lives of locals and inspiring new logistics planning. In the UK, by 2023 large businesses will be compelled to outline in detail how they intend to hit climate change targets under proposed Treasury rules.

This increased focus on sustainability is being felt by the materials handling and intralogistics industry. According to research undertaken by Joloda Hydraroll, 88% of companies confirm they are feeling pressure from environmental sustainability issues, with almost half (46%) believing the pressure to make environmental changes comes from the government / net zero strategy.

These legislative demands come at a time, however, when companies in every sector are facing up to a new reality: the days of cheap, inexhaustible labour are over. From driver shortage to a lack of warehouse operatives, employee shortfalls are devastating performance and damaging reputations. The short-term response is to offer higher pay. In an era of raging inflation, this approach is not only dangerous it is doomed to fail: worker expectations have changed fundamentally.

Prioritising employee experience

Worker safety and wellbeing is a challenge for logistics and transport companies. Fewer people want to undertake strenuous, sometimes dangerous or unpleasant jobs. But manual loading and unloading can be a high-risk process. Forklift truck accidents are increasing, with 1300 UK employees hospitalised each year with serious injuries, and jobs can be both tedious and stressful on occasion. HGV drivers often spend hours waiting for trucks to be unloaded or loaded and then face huge pressure to reach the next destination within allotted hours.

It’s in this context that companies are pushing forward with initiatives to meet environmental targets. Over a third (37%) have already made substantial changes according to the Joloda Hydraroll research. With the ongoing labour shortage, a truly sustainable business needs to prioritise employee wellbeing to support recruitment and adopt a far more joined-up approach to strategic decision-making.

For example, rather than simply replacing the existing forklift truck fleet with battery-powered equipment, can automation minimise business reliance on this technology?  With growing reports of businesses struggling to access additional power requirements given the surge in demand created by electric vehicles, migrating to battery power is no longer a straightforward decision. Automating the loading and unloading process can completely remove the need for forklifts – and forklift drivers – in the loading area, a fact that would be extremely welcome to both operations and HR.

Joined up business case

Automated loading technology eradicates dangerous, manual tasks. It ensures safe handling of hazardous materials; and removes the need to stand for hours in all weathers. Instead, the business can maximise the time and expertise of staff, improving their wellbeing, boosting retention and mitigating the challenges in the labour market.

Furthermore, by reducing unloading/ loading times from a typical 45 minutes to less than three minutes, there is a positive impact on other workers in the supply chain. HGV drivers are no longer left waiting for hours, watching the clock and hoping to get to the next destination on time. Confidence in delivery timelines will improve job satisfaction. Logistics operations can maximise driver time, improve productivity and even reduce the number of drivers required.

Every step of this automation process has positive implications for environmental performance. Automated loading and unloading is not just faster, it is more efficient, minimising accidents and product damage. The transformation in productivity can allow companies to radically reduce the number of dock doors and slash the number of trailers, significantly cutting emissions from operations. Reducing the number of battery-powered forklift trucks means less power is consumed – allowing companies to better manage electricity requirements – and concerns regarding the toxicity of lithium-ion technology can be mitigated. HGVs are not left idling in car parks for hours, and improved turnaround time enables route optimisation to further reduce fuel consumption – benefitting both the bottom line and the drive towards net zero.

Conclusion

According to the Joloda Hydraroll survey, 86% of respondents agree this is just the start of sustainable business strategies and objectives, and there will be more pressure to change in the future. Environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) strategies are becoming key to business relationships. As shareholders, customers and business partners call for tangible proof of commitment, it is becoming increasingly important to understand how and where sustainability fits into broader business strategies.

This heightened demand for truly sustainable operations – environmentally, economically and socially – is accelerating change. Interest in automation, including robotic technologies such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated mobile robots (AMRs), is soaring. Growing numbers of companies are committed to creating fully lights-out operations within the next decade. To safeguard talent, attitudes to employees must also change, minimising their risks and improving their day-to-day experience.

A business case for automation must, by default, now incorporate the environmental, social and economic impact. By embedding this broad range of criteria: efficiency, cost-saving, productivity, carbon footprint and employee wellbeing, businesses can prioritise and maximise the value of automation, from both a financial and sustainable perspective.