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The role of robotics in carbon-neutral warehouses

Making warehouse logistics carbon neutral will look different in every industry, but it starts with energy efficiency measures such as lighting upgrades.

Exotec's robotics technology

Exotec's flagship product, the Skypod System, is an order preparation system that implements collaborative robots and storage. Image courtesy of Exotec

A 2020 survey by GRESB, an investor-led global environment, social and governance benchmarking organization, found that only 7 percent of U.S. buildings are certified under some green building framework, compared to 25 percent of those in Asia. Clearly, building operators have a long way to go to halt carbon dioxide emissions, and striving toward carbon-neutral warehouses represents a good place to start.

How can businesses continue to run logistics in the large spaces they need while also operating sustainably? There is no perfect formula or roadmap to achieving net-zero emissions. Still, certain technologies — including robotics and automation — may work more efficiently than others in the quest to push for carbon-neutral warehouses, according to industry insiders. 

"There are many technologies involved in building a carbon-neutral warehouse. It’s a combination of different systems," said Thomas Genestar, managing director of Western Europe and Japan operations for Exotec, which sells warehouse robotics systems. "I feel like this is the way businesses should go little by little."

An analysis by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests that achieving net-zero emissions in and outside of warehouses will involve four main strategies

  • Generating electricity without emissions by using wind, solar, nuclear and water power sources. Finding better ways to store electricity could help, too.
  • Using vehicles and equipment powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels, including electric heating for buildings.
  • Using energy more efficiently by investing in smart technologies that can sense when energy is needed or not and optimize how electricity is generated.
  • Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to offset emissions. This can be accomplished by using technologies that trap carbon dioxide.

For some immediate changes, Chris Gray, CTO of RENU Communities, a subsidiary of Taurus Investment Holdings, suggests replacing HVAC systems with advanced heat pump-based heating/cooling solutions and installing rooftop solar panels to help power local electricity needs. RENU Communities helps building operators create customized carbon-neutral ecosystems by delivering decarbonized energy retrofits and wholesale equipment upgrades to existing real estate assets.

"At an infrastructure level, installing improved insulation, LED lighting upgrades, new windows and doors, and water heating upgrades can drastically affect the energy efficiency of a building," Gray said.

Previous warehouse technologies weren’t created to be energy-efficient. Now, it’s something our customers and employees require.

Making warehouse logistics carbon neutral will look different in every industry. 

"Carbon-neutral buildings are not a one-size-fits-all approach, and each retrofitting process should be treated differently. It’s important to look at the location and resources available to a building location," Gray said. "As sustainability continues to be at the forefront of global real estate development goals, more businesses must start strategizing about green building to combat issues surrounding climate change."

Warehouse automation systems can help with more than lowering carbon dioxide emissions. Genestar said Exotec’s employees are sensible and concerned about working for a business that is good for the planet, so workers are consistently involved in the company’s decision-making processes and in the roadmap for its technology. This collaboration has helped foster a better sense of belonging within Exotec, he said.

"Previous warehouse technologies weren’t created to be energy-efficient. Now, it’s something our customers and employees require," Genestar said. "We are very proud that some of our customers are sensitive to this argument because it’s very important to us in terms of the future for our planet."

In Resilinc's 2020 EventWatch Report, the supply chain data monitoring company revealed that supply chain disruptions increased 67 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. Some of these disruptions can be linked to the high demand following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Resilinc reported that 83 percent of disruptive events were caused by human errors. Automation could help prevent some of those errors. 

Exotec Skypod robots

Exotec’s Skypod robots can reach heights up to 36 feet and carry up to 66 pounds of cargo. Image courtesy of Exotec


Technologies and use cases

Exotec, which designs robotic systems for supply chain needs, is a company focused on that opportunity. The company was founded in 2015 by Romain Moulin and Renaud Heitz, former General Electric Healthcare engineers. Its flagship product, the Skypod System, is an order preparation system that implements collaborative robots and storage. The equipment is adaptable and includes various components such as productivity stations, bins and trays. 

Exotec’s warehouse automation technologies all work together, and unlike humans, the robots can work around the clock. Exotec’s Skypod robots can reach heights up to 36 feet, carry up to 66 pounds of cargo, do tasks in the order you assign them, move in three dimensions and adapt to flow increase as more robots join the system. The company reports that its Skypods have an energy footprint that’s 80 percent less than traditional warehouse automation solutions. For example, Genestar said the company uses less space and energy to handle the same stock load it managed before installing its robots in its own warehouses. 

"The Exotec Skypod system uses up to 80 percent less energy compared to traditional automated solutions, which enables its customers to cut the carbon footprint of their warehouse operations," Genestar said. "The system increases warehouse throughput up to five times with a two-minute response time for all SKUs. This efficiency allows warehouse operators to do more with less, especially when you consider the Skypod's ability to move in three dimensions."

By design, Exotec helps reduce carbon emissions by enabling high-density storage and having a smaller energy footprint than traditional automated solutions. Exotec supports more than 30 brands spanning e-commerce, grocery, retail, logistics and manufacturing. Some of the company's most notable customers include Gap, Geodis, Ariat, Decathlon and E.Leclerc. That said, the most illustrative example is Exotec’s work with a major French retail chain named Monoprix.

Monoprix chose Exotec to deploy the Skypod in its new state-of-the-art facility, Genestar shared. Exotec reports that the logistics site has a surface area of roughly 1 million square feet and will be the world’s first fully carbon-neutral warehouse based on projected occupancy of 12 years.

This fully converted logistics site will enable the Monoprix Group to pursue its objective of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in half while fulfilling its ambition of omnichannel growth. Monoprix will use the site for store replenishment and e-commerce fulfillment to achieve this. That’s close to 45 million parcels per year, which Exotec’s Skypod system will handle. Genestar said the company specifically chose Skypod due to its reliability, flexibility and low energy footprint.

Exotec’s founders developed the Skypod System after Amazon spent $775 million in 2012 to purchase a robotics company called Kiva Systems.

Amazon has since moved into testing other robots from its robotics and advanced tech labs. It is mainly focused on creating technologies to move carts and packages throughout its warehouses. The e-commerce giant has a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2040 and run entirely on clean energy by 2025. Amazon reports that it has 169 on-site solar systems across its warehouses. It has also deployed a fleet of custom electric delivery vehicles in Los Angeles, and plans to have 10,000 more EVs on the road by the end of this year. 

Exotec isn’t the only company focused on warehouse automation that can helps support carbon neutrality goals. Some of the company’s competitors include Plus One Robotics, Fetch Robotics, Scallog and Cubyn. These companies also build automated robotics solutions and tech-enabled order fulfillment services for warehouses.

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