WDP- Kristof De Witte: “You can’t have innovative supply chains without smart buildings”

18/02/2022 — minutes reading time
WDP Kristof De Witte2

It’s a long time since warehouses were transformed from ‘big boxes’ into innovative buildings enabling smart logistics chains. But we don’t always realise how crucial they are to the development of intelligent supply chains. Kristof De Witte, CEO of WDP Belgium, explains the importance of innovation, sustainability and cross-fertilisation.

What impact does innovation have on the development of logistics buildings?

It’s often said that innovation in logistics happens inside buildings, with more robotisation and automation for greater efficiency and new forms of logistics. A good example is e-commerce, which requires faster rotations. But what happens inside buildings definitely has an impact on how the buildings are designed, because they have to allow room for increased throughput.

In addition, the worker shortage means that as a developer we have to use more innovation and work more closely with clients. The shortage has changed the Return on Investment (ROI) for robotisation. Robotisation is really taking off at the moment, which is having an impact not only on building design, but also on our relationships with clients. Sometimes clients will ask us to take on part of the cost of automation ourselves. This means it’s more important than ever for us to come up with innovative solutions, since we’re sometimes investing our own money in projects.

Can you give an example?

WDP developed Barry Callebaut’s new worldwide distribution centre in Lokeren. This 60,000 m² building is 100% energy neutral and comprises a traditional warehouse and a 40 m high, fully-automated ‘high bay’. In the high bay, the structure is formed by the racks and crane paths. The walls are only a skin. We invested in these crane paths, designing the concept in collaboration with Barry Callebaut and specialists.

How else does innovation influence the development of logistics buildings?

Sustainability is a very important aspect involving a lot of innovation. WDP wrote a Climate Action Plan, which focuses on energy, decarbonisation and sustainability. Innovation starts with designing the warehouse. Wherever possible, the roof acts as a solar power plant. The next step is developing batteries to store that energy so it can be used at night.

Another aspect requiring significant innovation is monitoring. At the moment, 73% of our buildings are monitored at a granular level. We’re aiming for 100% by 2025. One example is temperature control in freezer rooms. When the sun is at its peak, we can use the electricity being produced to proactively lower the temperature to -25°C, significantly reducing energy consumption during the night. Another example is controlling LED lighting: keeping it at 10%, and only increasing it to 100% in the places where people are actually working. These kinds of actions make the building smarter.

So solar panels help make buildings smarter?

Absolutely. For example, they make it possible to switch from gas to heat pumps for heating. In the future they will also enable charging stations to be installed for lorries, accelerating their introduction into the supply chain. As a developer we’re increasingly investing in energy innovation, which helps clients keep their costs down.

Which is actually a form of knowledge transfer?

Absolutely. Many clients have similar activities. In Wolvertem we have a team of specialists who take the knowledge we’ve built up and share it with new clients. They also help existing clients make their buildings more efficient with better insulation, installing solar roofs, and so on.

We also share this knowledge with contractors; we can show them how to reduce a building’s footprint by choosing different materials.

Does that change the relationship with clients?

Knowledge is important not only for creating smart buildings, but also for partnering with clients in the area of innovation. The more we know, the better we understand clients and the more we can support them in designing their supply chains. Logistics processes evolve very quickly. We can use our knowledge to give advice, such as suggesting they organise their buildings differently. For instance, shuttle systems and other goods-to-person solutions require less space in the shipping area. At the start of our discussions we can proactively suggest to clients that they make the shipping area smaller and organise the rest of the building differently.

WDP operates in several countries. Do you think Belgium is lagging behind when it comes to innovation?

Not really, in the sense that our clients often operate internationally and their various branches in each country share knowledge, including with their Belgian branch. Generally speaking, purely local players are not lagging behind with regard to innovation, but they sometimes have less money to spend on automation, for example. Log!Ville can help change that because demonstrating technology and sharing good practices can remove barriers.

The way I see it, the biggest bottleneck for innovation at the moment is actually not the scale of companies, it’s the length of contracts. If a client limits the contractual term to three years, it’s very difficult for the logistics service provider, no matter how big or small it is, to invest in robotisation or automation.