It should be no surprise that a $9+ billion company like Grainger has the ambition to think big. The company’s Minooka, IL branch--a one million square foot central stocking distribution center--has all the finishing touches of a top-of-the-line, premium efficiency facility. And efficiency, in this case, has a dual meaning: Not only is the DC outfitted with a state-of-the-art automated system to enable quick deliveries for customers, it’s also the world's largest LEED certified platinum-rated facilities for Commercial Interiors, meaning the environmental impact was considered from the very start.
Taking the LEED on Energy
There are 16 LEED certified buildings in the Grainger network in U.S., Canada, and Mexico. According to Grainger, it was the first industrial distributor to have LEED certified facilities, which, on average, reduce energy costs by 30 percent, water usage by 35 to 50 percent, and overall waste by as much as 90 percent. In Minooka, this waste reduction is accomplished through a number of strategies, which include:
• An approximately 2,200 square-foot solar wall, which uses air and solar capabilities to help reduce energy consumption.
• Energy efficient lighting along with motion sensors.
• Electric automobile charger stations.
It’s important for a company like Grainger to “walk the walk,” especially as it touts more service-based solutions for its customers that focus on sustainability and energy savings. Grainger’s 16 LEED facilities assume a total of 3.7 million square feet and the business continues to look for ways to reduce environmental waste.
Keeping Inventory Moving
But the sustainability and recycling components are just one piece of the puzzle. In the end, Grainger is all about getting product to the customer in the fastest way possible while keeping the needs of employees in mind. Flexibility is an important element to this operation, as Grainger works to maintain certain benefits for its 450 employees. “Bright Ideas” boards encourage collaboration and idea-sharing, and the facility’s “Decompression Room” allows Minooka associates to unwind with some TV or a game of ping pong. The facility is also home to a state-of-the-art fitness room, which employees have full access to.
From an ergonomic standpoint, workstations are developed in wood prototypes first to provide the ability to shift configurations so heights are optimal in the end product. They are designed to eliminate pushing or pulling of carts, helping to reduce the risk of sprains and strains. As they load and unload, workers can discard unneeded packaging onto an arm-height conveyor system that moves the excess through the facility. According to Robert Favaro, Director of DC operations, the facility recycled 303 tons of cardboard last year, along with 22 tons of plastic wrap. Metal scrap and banding is also recycled.
Industrial vending machines provide easy access to heavy use items like gloves and box cutters through the employee’s ID cards, and communication is facilitated by individual radios. Efficiency is important since the suburban Chicago DC’s commitment is to provide same-day service into the city when an order is placed by noon. Employees dubbed “water spiders” deliver boxes to individual packing stations so employees don’t need to leave their areas to re-stock supplies. Favaro says one of the facility’s top goals is to “take the travel away” and allow for the most throughput in the smallest footprint. An 85,000 square foot mezzanine helps facilitate the facility’s footprint optimization efforts. On the main floor, a large throughway dubbed “The Spine” segregates conveyable products from non-conveyable ones, keeping congestion to a minimum by designating space for each type of work.
Automation for the Future
This design to “take the travel away” makes perfect sense for many of the traditional DC operations. According to Favaro, non-value-added work where employees were walking five or six miles per day and pushing heavy carts could really take a lot out of warehouse employees. But Grainger Minooka is also very focused on not automating every process, especially when a human eye for detail can improve quality and accuracy. For example, says Favaro, “We try not to remove some of the knowledge element of the work that we do. Being able to say ‘this item doesn’t belong here even though the slotting tool said it should go here — I don’t think that manual part will ever be automated. That’s where the value of the tenure of your employees comes in.”