Keeping in line with Walmart’s goal to achieve zero waste, 90 percent of the waste was diverted in the construction of the building—compared to an industry average of about 10 percent.
One of the challenges Walmart faced was the piloting of new technologies. “This comes with inherent risk, but we couldn’t meet our sustainability objectives using the technologies of yesterday,” says Garbutt. “At the same time, we had to make sure these investments would work because our number one goal is to service our customers—and the distribution center had to be able to do that. We spent three months researching new technologies and working with our vendors to determine how the solutions to work, as well as the costing and savings we would generate.”
One of the biggest investments was in hydrogen fuel cells, which the company sees as an alternative to lead acid batteries as a power source for material handling equipment—especially at high-throughput distribution centers such as the Balzac facility. For the first time, Walmart is equipping an entire lift truck fleet with hydrogen fuel cells.
The hydrogen comes from Quebec, where it’s produced using 98 percent renewable energy sources. It’s then trucked to Alberta about every two weeks—and the savings outweigh the transportation costs. “In the construction phase, we were able to eliminate the costs associated with wiring and we didn’t need a battery area,” says Garbutt. “And there are ongoing operational savings as well, such as no time lost for battery changing.”
Hydrogen fuel cells power the facility’s entire fleet of 71 lift trucks. The use of fuel cells as a power source will reduce C02 emissions from the vehicle fleet by 55 percent or an estimated 530 tons annually, the equivalent of taking 101 passenger vehicles off the road per year. Their use will also improve productivity and result in a cost-avoidance of an estimated $1.3 million over five years.
By using fuel cell technology at such a large scale at the Balzac facility, Walmart will be able to evaluate the efficiency of the technology and access where it can used elsewhere in its distribution network. “There’s a risk in our ROI, because the technology is new and you don’t know what you don’t know,” says Garbutt. “But we absolutely believe in fuel cell technology from both an operations standpoint and a sustainability standpoint. We’re counting on the industry to adopt this technology with us. We believe this investment will speed wider adoption of the technology, which will ultimately drive down costs for our consumers, our competitors and ourselves.”
Energy efficiency extends in the day-to-day operations as well. The DC is using a novel pick-by-line approach, where product is pre-allocated to its destination store upon arrival at the DC. Product is unloaded, inspected, added to inventory and then organized in a staging area rather than in racking. It is then pick up the same day and loaded back onto trucks for store delivery.
This approach delivers perishable products to retailers and consumers one day faster than a traditional inventory management process and avoids the infrastructure costs of racking systems. “Pick-by-line allows us to deliver the freshest food possible to our customers,” says Garbutt. “The process, which requires full synchronization with our vendors and distribution centers, makes it possible to move fresh food out of the distribution center within 24 hours of arrival, thereby providing the freshest possible perishable goods to our customers.”
In the refrigerated and freezer areas, conveyor belts move completed pallets out of the temperature zones through small, automatic openings and to the wrap machines in preparation for outbound moves. The system conserves energy by requiring a smaller opening and saves time by removing the need for an associate to transport pallets to wrap machine.
In order to meet sustainability objectives, the Walmart/SCM team realized that it needed to establish a constant day-to-day culture. To achieve this, new team members participate in sustainability orientations and a “sustainability showcase” is included in common area displays and in educational material throughout the site.