There are many good reasons for cutting use of electric power in a distribution center, including lower operating costs and reduced carbon emissions, but in some areas of the world, it may be more a matter of absolute necessity.
Such is the case with Adcock Ingram, a South African manufacturer and distributors of pharmaceuticals and over the counter medicines. A few years ago, the company was split out as an independent company again after it had been earlier acquired, and needed to find some additional distribution space as it no longer would use the acquiring company's DCs.
According to Group Logistics Manager Kirk Nash at the SAPICS conference this week in Sun City, South Africa, Adcock quickly acquired some space in the city of Midrand that had been used by a electronics distributor, and it had just four months to get the facility ready. That included the need to keep a cool and near constant temperature in the building to meet product and regulatory requirements for its drugs.
The crisis: Nash soon learned that a traditional air conditioning system along with other power needs, including lighting, fork truck battery charging, an attached office area, etc., would require nearly double the amount of voltage that the local electric utility could deliver. A meeting with the utility delivered some shocking news: the utility could certainly increase the amount of power it supplier to the location - but not for three to five years.
This not only was a business crisis for Adcock, it could potentially be a life or death scenario. If Adcock could not open the Midrand DC on time, some people with vital needs for its medicines in the area might not be able to get them.
To solve the problem for the 100,000 sq. foot facility, cost became almost no factor. The goal was to find an alternative cooling system that required roughly half that of a traditional one, and to seek other changes that could similarly lower electric use in other areas.
A wide variety of solutions were considered. Solar panels were one option, but the DC roof couldn't support the weight, and there were concerns about temperature consistency if a series of cloudy days significantly reduced the amount of energy generated.
Adcock also looked at other more bizarre (to those in many parts of the world at least) solutions, including separate systems in which one would freeze water at night and use it to cool the DC in the day, and a parallel system that would boil water at night and use it to heat the building. Adcock did strongly consider combining an ice block system with a geo-thermal system for the heat, but the overall complexity of the approach was a deterrent.
According to Martin Bailey, a professor at a South African university who also runs consulting firm Industrial Logistics Systems and helped Adcock on this project, they went through two cooling system consultants and two electrical consultants without really finding an attractive solution.
On their own, the project team found a technology called Variable Refrigerant Volume (VRV), in which temperature controlled liquid (cold or hot) in pipes is pumped around a building, and then fans blow air over the pipes and deliver the right air into the DC or office.
One vendor of these systems, a Japanese firm called Daikin, told Adcock the technology had been successfully used in office buildings, but never in a DC. However, they were pleased to give it a try.