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4 Critical Factors for Sustainable Operations

by Ryan Lynch | Tue, Jul 20, 2021

sustainable-operations

Sustainability is often perceived as having little business impact. However, many companies have seen outsized returns as they pivot to become more sustainable--in part, because sound environmental practices have become important to a greater number of customers. However, sustainability is defined in different ways by different companies (more on that later) and the effects of these initiatives often extend beyond simply improving your company’s environmental impact. For example, re-examining corporate practices can also optimize uptime and improve employees’ wellness, safety, and job satisfaction.

So, what does sustainability truly mean?

At the end of the day, “sustainable” companies are those which deliver long-term value for their customer, their shareholders, and the world by creating social or environmental benefits. Historically, this has been referred to as the “triple bottom line.” There is even an investment industry called Impact Investing that has focused capital to grow these types of businesses. 

If you’re confused about how to reap the benefits, you’re not alone. The pursuit of sustainability can take many paths and there’s no right or wrong route. Every company has different values and, as a result, will define success differently. (As an example, Beyond Meat’s sustainable supply chain helped the company make tremendous gains during the pandemic.)  The good news is that choices you make every day about applications and facilities can advance you further towards your sustainability goals. 

When you’re creating those goals, there are four main areas to consider to create holistic, sustainable operations:

Safety and Wellness: Workforce health and safety are critical to the longevity of any operation. The pandemic has highlighted this, but it’s true even during "normal" conditions. Let’s use material handling as an example; often, you’ll see enormous safety and wellness impacts from a system design. Why? A workplace becomes “healthier” in all senses of the word by reducing the number of forklifts and other assets, minimizing dangerous battery changes, and creating a system that optimizes employee patterns of exertion. High-tech options like augmented reality for training can pay off--but work more effectively if you’ve already optimized other aspects of your systems.

The best part, in our view, is that safety improvements are a two-fer; they not only reduce employee incidents, they also improve performance and, consequently, productivity! When you’re considering new projects, ask yourself whether the change will deliver the safety impact expected. 

Efficiency: When companies find ways to be more productive, they inherently boost services for the end customer, unlock savings for the company, and use fewer resources. There are many ways to become more efficient, but one route is to ensure every piece of equipment is optimally used and well maintained to prevent time-consuming delays, expensive repairs, and wasted resources (e.g., energy, fuel, materials, etc.). For some Concentric clients, for example, running an efficient operation involves powering forklifts with batteries that excel in their specific environment. This ensures they will run for as long as possible and won’t break down in a pinch.

System design and management: Sustainable operations rely on people and equipment meeting (and ideally exceeding) expectations. 

Here again, the term "system design" can refer to anything from digital technologies to day-to-day procedures. From Concentric’s point of view, it means designing forklift power systems that reduce the number of assets (and, consequently, batteries) required, optimizing their usage, and developing a maintenance program that will extend asset lifespans. 

Surprisingly, “new” technology doesn’t always equal more sustainable. At Concentric, we’ve seen some of the best environmental results from lead acid batteries. That’s a hundred-year old-technology (that happens to be almost totally recyclable)! But we’ve also designed sustainable systems using lithium and hydrogen ion batteries. What’s most important is leveraging data, as well as considering the company’s goals, applications, and business requirements. Sustainability isn’t just one-size-fits-all. 

It’s crucial to design a system for the long haul. Are you designing a sustainable system that will get you the same results in the fifth or tenth year as it will when it’s newly implemented? You want to design a system that can scale with you as your business grows or shrinks. (The pandemic has certainly reinforced the importance of being flexible!) For example, a material handling system should be designed with the right chargers and the right technology/applications. 

A consideration that many forget: once you’ve built the system, you must maintain it properly to ensure it remains sustainable. In most cases, if it’s critical business equipment that isn’t core to your business (for example, beer equipment for a beer manufacturer), outsourcing maintenance makes sense. It frees up your resources for core business and strategy while ensuring your maintenance happens according to schedule.

Environment:  it’s no secret that customers across every industry are aligning with organizations that show a commitment to more environmentally responsible organizations. An added benefit is that most employees feel more positive about an environmentally sustainable workplace, as well. As we mentioned earlier, sustainable environments are also safer environments.

It (literally) pays to examine ways in which you can reduce energy, water, or waste and employ greener technologies and practices that lower your carbon footprint and utility bills. For example, an overhaul of material handling practices can reduce your:

  • Carbon footprint 

  • Risks from battery acid 

  • Electricity usage

  • Waste 

The “Big Picture”: 

It’s easy to get bogged down in all the small details. That’s why it’s important to have a sustainable operations champion in-house who can keep the end goal in mind. Outsourcing to a trusted partner can also be a great way to leverage outside expertise in something like material handling, which requires a certain level of engineering knowledge and has constantly evolving technologies. 

Sustainability is something people talk about that usually involves new-age technology, government subsidies and lots of PR--but not as much business impact. The reality is that there are great sustainability projects out there. The key is defining sustainability by examining your company’s parameters for success, then choosing and implementing projects that will help you move further toward those goals.  

It’s possible to find proven sustainability projects; you just have to find teams/approaches that are repeatedly implementing and producing success with sustained results. For example, Concentric’s own GuaranteedPOWER® program consistently reduces costs by 30% while maintaining uptime.

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