Leveraging Warehouse Sustainability with Automation

Automated order fulfillment in distribution and manufacturing can impact sustainability far beyond energy reduction and minimize carbon footprint. Yet many of these benefits – such as improved worker productivity and faster throughput – are often overlooked for how they contribute to a company’s overall sustainability goals. 

An excellent example are the latest vertical lift modules and horizontal carousels, such as those designed by Modula, which support sustainability, while enabling inventory to be stored, picked, packed, and shipped with optimized performance. 

Not too long ago, making decisions about a company’s sustainability was a fairly straightforward process for most facility managers. Switching to LED lighting, upgrading HVAC systems, and streamlining production by moving to a more integrated process controls architecture, were some of the initiatives a company may have undertaken in pursuit of improved sustainability.  

But today it is different. For industrial and manufacturing companies, the integration of sustainability projects is more likely part of a broad-scoped strategy to optimize all facets of the business, from facility operations through process functions, manpower, and distribution. Such a strategy takes into consideration a company’s higher-level, long-term business goals. This may include communicating the organization’s awareness of its environmental impacts, its initiatives toward energy conservation, and its focus on healthy working conditions for employees by promoting a working environment that utilizes sustainable materials and processes.  

Every business is facing the call to convert to sustainable business practices. A recent Kearney survey finding shows that 80% of buyers consider the environmental impacts of their purchases. Responding to this, manufacturers continue to build sustainable practices into their operations, creating value for their customers, themselves, and their stakeholders. 

Distribution, and the Three Pillars of Warehouse Sustainability 

This is particularly relevant with supply chain companies. According to the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals State of Logistics Report 2022,Industrial, manufacturing and logistics companies, as primary consumers of energy and a major historic source of carbon emissions in the global economy, must play a leading role in partnership with sustainability. Better synchronized supply chains, aligned to shared sustainability goals, are essential to reaching greenhouse gas reduction targets.” 

Transporting goods is a big contributor to global carbon emissions, but warehouses, particularly refrigerated warehouses, are some of the most energy-intensive industrial facilities on the planet. Energy consumption represents the second highest operating expense in refrigerated facilities, trailing only labor costs, according to industrial energy management firm, Cascade Energy. In food distribution and grocery warehouses, refrigeration uses about 50% of total energy use and 65–75 % in fully refrigerated facilities. 

As warehouses seek to reduce the cost and environmental impact of their distribution operations, while faced with upscaling to meet growth targets, three solutions should always be evaluated:  

1) Maximizing the use of space to reduce the need for storage and the energy use it requires;  
2) Automating manual processes that will permit goods to be moved more rapidly and safely through the facility, minimizing energy use and carbon emissions;
3) Optimizing the design and function of automated material handling systems for operational efficiency. 

Essentially, these initiatives would progress the Three Pillars of Sustainability, which form the foundation of sustainability goals. Those being:  

a) Environmental Pillar – initiatives that reduce the carbon footprint of the business;  
b) Social Pillar – initiatives promoting the wellbeing, health, and safety of employees and customers;  
c) Economic Pillar – initiatives that ensure businesses can thrive while making these positive impacts. 

The 3 pillars of warehouse sustainability
The 3 pillars of sustainable development—economic, social and environmental.

Order Fulfillment for Warehouse Sustainability

Embodying these factors is order fulfillment. No sector of distribution has seen as much metamorphosis over the past two decades in support of sustainability as automated goods-to-person picking solutions for fulfillment of light goods in small-quantity orders.  

This makes sense when you consider the high-input human element at play in the traditional person-to-goods picking process used to prepare assembly line kitting requests, ship spare parts, and store and retrieve finished orders. In such an inventory model, pickers walk, or move a picking cart or lift truck, to rack and floor locations, and manually pick parts or finished goods. Items stored on racking or shelving, or in drawers, lead to slow process flows where time is mainly spent locating and retrieving items to fill orders. An activity that is energy and labor-consuming. (See graphic below) 

Warehouse sustainability: Manual vs Automated Picking
Traditional person-to-goods picking process vs goods-to-person process with automation

The true benefit of automated goods-to-person order fulfillment is that it allows inventory to be stored in a highly condensed low-footprint space, and then picked and packed with the operator remaining relatively stationary. Pickers are efficient when they are picking, not walking or trying to locate products. Goods-to-person technology presents considerable opportunities for embracing warehouse sustainability. 

To better put this into context, we will examine two automated goods-to-person systems that significantly leverage sustainability, and how they fit in with the Three Pillars of Sustainability: The latest vertical lift module (VLM) and horizontal carousel (HC) from Modula – a company which has been designing and manufacturing automated storage and picking solutions for manufacturing and distribution for more than 30 years. Capable of handling thousands of different SKUs, these VLMs and HCs allow inventory to be stored, picked, and packed with a very high level of efficiency while integrating many aspects supporting sustainability. 

VLMs and HCs – Environmental Warehouse Sustainability 

With automated fulfillment systems like the Modula VLMs and HCs, the Environmental factors are generally most recognized and associated with sustainable benefits. Here are some of these systems’ key Environmental factors supporting sustainability. 

Optimized Space 

The most visible sustainable aspect of these VLMs and HCs is their capability for optimized space. Items are stored in a very compact space, which significantly reduces the size of conventional inventory storage by up to 90. This enables facilities to save valuable floor space and concentrate operations in a smaller footprint closer to where they are needed, optimizing the operations flow, and the need for off-site storage is minimized.  

Adaptable Configurations 

The modular, scalable design of these latest VLMs and HCs allows them to be easily installed and implemented in any existing or greenfield warehouse or manufacturing facility. They function for both high and low-ceiling height applications, and facilities with unusual configurations. These systems permit the flexibility to easily be extended or contracted as needed to accommodate changes in SKU counts and throughput volumes, including for storage of both ambient and temperature-controlled products between 35.6° F and 77° F.  

The VLM utilizes the available room height from floor to ceiling, allowing for items to be stored up to 52 feet high on a very confined footprint. The same concept is used inside the VLM: shelf compaction is maximized according to product height, ensuring that tray utilization, usually just 40 percent in traditional static racking facilities, increases to 90 percent. Where ceiling height is limited, such as in an existing brownfield facility, the HC is designed for use in these operations. 

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Thanks to VLMs or HCs, facilities can save valuable floor space and concentrate operations in a smaller footprint

Minimized Energy Use and Energy Recuperation   

These VLMs and HCs only consume energy when the operator activates the systems to deliver a tray containing items to be picked. Otherwise, the VLM or HC is electrically dormant, with very little energy consumption.  

The VLM also makes available an energy recuperation capability. A specially designed inverter generates energy from the VLM’s movement. It converts kinetic energy produced by the descending elevator into electricity, feeding it back into the grid and supporting the VLM’s environmental warehouse sustainability. This functionality results in saving up to 40 percent on energy used by the VLM. 

Eliminated CO2 Emissions from Forklifts  

VLMs and HCs eliminate the need for forklifts and their emissions. 

VLMs and HCs – Social Warehouse Sustainability 

The benefits of wellbeing, health, and safety for personnel operating the VLM and HC are Social sustainability factors that are less well recognized, but nevertheless, very welcomed. Here are the key Social sustainability benefits afforded by these VLMs and HCs. 


Incoming goods are inventoried into the VLM or HC. As orders are required to be filled, the items are automatically retrieved from the storage system and brought to the picker at an ergonomic receipt station, where items are then picked from partitioned trays. Since the picker does not have to walk, the focus at the pick station is on high productivity. 

Inventory is delivered directly to operators without exposing them to moving parts or requiring them to use heavy machinery. The systems retrieve trays with the stored items and deliver them to the user at the optimum ergonomic retrieval height.  

The VLM is capable of presenting trays internally or externally. Internal bays are best for limited floor space applications. External bays offer optimum ergonomics for operators, as well as adapting picking aids, like cranes or mechanical manipulator interfaces such as anthropomorphous robots.  

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Vertical Lift Module – Ergonomic Workstation

Picking Productivity 

To support high picking productivity, the operator uses an HMI copilot controller, and products are picked from trays with the scan of a barcode. These features eliminate the need to search for items and ensure that the right item is delivered with the order, significantly reducing picking errors, and increasing productivity and efficiency. 

With simple visual picking aids, operators can quickly and easily identify the items needed to be picked or replenished, and greatly reduce mispicks. These include X-axis LED bars, alphanumeric pointers, laser pointers, put-to-light, and external picking monitors. 

Multiple HCs, referred to as “pods”, can be combined to achieve higher picking performance, using Modula’s WMS to create a batch of orders that can be filled at the same time. Operators only visit each SKU location once during each batch, increasing accuracy, reducing picking times, and increasing productivity by as much as 65 percent. 

With traditional warehouse shelving, a picker can pick up to about 40 lines per hour. With these  VLMs and HCs, that rate reaches 150 – 250 lines per hour. One operator can do the job of what was previously done by 3 or 4 workers.  

Increase productivity with automation to achieve warehouse sustainability
With simple visual picking aids, operators can quickly identify the items to be picked or replenished.

VLMs and HCs – Economic Warehouse Sustainability 

The remaining pillar is Economic sustainability – initiatives that ensure businesses can thrive while making these positive impacts. With Modula VLMs and HCs, these benefits are immediate and ongoing.  Following are some of the key benefits. 

Reduce Costs

Reduced Storage and Transportation Costs 

Less space is needed, in many cases 90% less. The costs associated with off-site facilities for storage and transportation between location facilities are reduced, or even eliminated. 

Minimized Returns 

Better ergonomics improve working conditions and reduce sick-days and turnover. Picking aids improve picking accuracy, minimize returns, and reduce the additional costs of shipping and packaging waste, which support a more efficient operation. 

The VLM is capable of presenting trays internally or externally. Internal bays are best for limited floor space applications. External bays offer optimum ergonomics for operators, as well as adapting picking aids, like cranes or mechanical manipulator interfaces such as anthropomorphous robots.  

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Picking aids improve accuracy, minimize returns, and reduce the additional cost

Improved Security 

Despite the implementation of conventional security procedures, valuable items sometimes end up going somewhere other than their intended designation. The same occurs for accidental release of wrong, obsolete, expired, or on-hold products. The VLMs and HCs decrease the costs associated with inventory risks by increasing inventory security.  

Inventory of goods within the VLM and HC is being stored in a safe and secure environment, permitting user authentication with badge, EKS, and RFID readers. Access to products can be configured to admit only authorized operators, and WMS can keep track of SKUs stored in the units. This means no more missing parts taking up inventory space.  

These VLM and HC units trace the movement of items coming in and going out, consequently, the tasks associated with inventory monitoring are all but eliminated. That saves on time and resources, and the expense of hiring someone who specializes in such matters as securing parts against theft.  By housing them in an enclosed machine with limited, and traceable access, these losses drop precipitously. 

Sustainable Distribution and Manufacturing 

A growing number of companies are treating sustainability as a critical objective in their strategy and operations to increase growth and global competitiveness. This trend has reached well beyond the small niche of those who traditionally positioned themselves as “green”. It now includes the most prominent businesses across a multitude of industry sectors. 

Sustainable changes should focus not only on equipment, processes, and the environment, but also on the people working within these environments, and how their employee experience can be improved. 

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