When you picture warehouses of the future, what do these warehouses look like? Presumably they’re clean, efficient, and employing technology in any way possible in order to ensure that the inventory they keep is in safe hands as it travels from the manufacturer to the end user.

Building warehouses of the future to meet these specifications is, of course, easier said than done. In order for warehouses to be true “lights-out” facilities (meaning warehouses or distribution centers that are run completely, or almost completely, by machines) they must look toward a number of areas—and that’s before we bring sustainability into the picture.

At Rubicon, a software company born in the waste and recycling industry, our mission is to end waste, in all of its forms. Our core business focuses on using technology to help turn businesses into more sustainable enterprises and neighborhoods into greener and smarter places to live and work.

While our commercial recycling services and smart city technology offerings are a core part of this mission as we work to divert materials away from the landfill and into appropriate recycling streams, we are invested in ensuring a more sustainable future for everyone; and when it comes to retail, logistics, and sustainable supply chain management, this starts with warehouses.

The Changing Role of Warehouses

We can’t build warehouses of the future with sustainability in mind without first considering how consumer behavior is changing, and in many cases, straining, current warehouse operations.

The continued shift toward online purchasing means that it is becoming necessary for warehouses to hold more inventory than ever. While it is rarely a problem for warehouses in rural areas to expand their footprint, we’re seeing more and more warehouses opening up on the outskirts of major cities, making the need to be as efficient a possible in the storage, transportation, and picking of inventory a bottom line necessity.

Within the last decade warehouses have gone from primarily operating as medium-to-long-term storage facilities for brick-and-mortar businesses, to facilities that are required to ship directly to the consumer, often in a two-three day window. Speed is of the essence for warehouses of the future, and a combination of more effective operations, and these warehouses being located closer to major cities and metropolitan areas, is what will allow warehouses to thrive in the circular economy.

Warehouses that “store air” are both wasteful and unsustainable. Similar to how “tipping air” in the world of waste and recycling can leave a significant amount of money on the table for customers that are being overserviced, warehouses of the future must consider efficiency above all else; and in my view, the ultimate efficiency comes from using technology to improve the sustainable operations of warehouses.

Merging Technology and Sustainability

In the same way that sustainable businesses look toward lean manufacturing principles to shore up their sustainable credentials, lean manufacturing principles can also pertain to building out sustainable warehouses of the future, with technology at the center of this movement.

Focused on reducing wasteful practices while increasing overall profit margin, the following lean manufacturing principles, when combined with technology, will help warehouses move toward a more sustainable future:

  • Inventory: While the warehouses of the future will keep considerably more inventory than they do today, each individual item of inventory will spend less time on a warehouse’s shelves than it does currently, and it will utilize the space it takes up more effectively.
  • Motion: As warehouses continue to automate, the lean manufacturing principle of “no wasted motion” will play out in warehouses of the future as they streamline efficiencies to ensure that inventory is never making any unnecessary journeys.
  • Waiting: No item of inventory should be stored in a warehouse longer than is absolutely necessary. Once picked, it shouldn’t be left waiting around to be placed in a dispatch truck.

In the warehousing industry as in manufacturing, time is money. A more sustainable warehouse is a more efficient warehouse.

One way in which technology is remaking warehouses is through the use of robotics. In order for sustainable warehouses of the future to stow, pick, and store inventory as quickly and efficiently as possible, technology advancements such as automatically guided vehicles (robots that can move inventory shelves across a warehouse floor), autonomous mechanical arms, and even low-flying indoor drones are being piloted at warehouses across the country in order to find new and more sustainable ways to fulfill their customer orders.

The Warehouses of the Future, Today

At Rubicon, we are an example of how powerful things can get done when technology and sustainability work together.

For one of our customers, a Fortune 100 multinational consumer electronics retailer, we provide on-site labor within a number of their regional distribution centers to manage the movement, handling, and preparation of recyclable commodities including cardboard, plastics, metal, mixed paper, pallets, wood waste, trash, and totes.

Using Rubicon’s technology platform, these recycling commodities are handled at various volumes and in different ways within each warehouse, depending on the material and requirements to prepare them for recycling or disposal. The retailer, which was named by Barron’s as one of the Most Sustainable Companies for 2019, is then able to ensure that their recyclable commodities make their way seamlessly through their warehouses to be received in trailers and shipped out to the appropriate recycling centers.

The circular economy is here to stay. The warehouses of the future that recognize and get on board with their changing roles, opting to put sustainability and efficiency at the forefront of their operations, will win in the long term.

To learn more about Rubicon’s work transforming the entire category of waste and recycling, be sure to download our inaugural Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Report.

If you have any questions, or you’re interested in learning more about Rubicon’s sustainability offerings, please reach out to Rubicon’s Sustainability team directly at sustainability@rubicon.com, or contact our sales team at (844) 479-1507.

Nick McCulloch is Senior Manager of Sustainability at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.