Aquinas students, Robinson Cartage team to bring green to heavy hauling

August 31, 2009
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Can “a dirty, greasy trucking company” go green?

Robinson Cartage President David Scripps wasn’t sure, but last winter he took a leap of faith and shared intimate details of the firm, founded by his great-grandfather, with a class in Aquinas College’s Sustainable Business program.

The result was a student-made Microsoft Excel-based multi-modal calculator for measuring Robinson Cartage’s “carbon footprint,” a combination of fuel usage and efficiency estimates that the company is using to review trucking practices.

The approach is uncommon for companies like Robinson Cartage, which specializes in heavy industrial hauling, Scripps said.

“It sounded great,” Scripps said. “I hadn’t really considered that. I just didn’t think I’d be a candidate for green — a dirty industry like this.”

Tabbed for moving large, heavy and unwieldy loads such as machinery, bridge supports and wind turbine parts throughout North America, Robinson Cartage, 2712 Chicago Drive SW, employs 35 people, owns 25 tractors and 125 trailers. The company specializes in deliveries to Mexico.

Scripps was approached by Bruce Thompson of Rockford-Berge, Rockford Construction Co.’s joint venture in wind farms with Spanish firm Bergé Logística Energética and the MAPA Group. Thompson, a 1985 Aquinas grad, was team-teaching the Sustainable Business Innovations Lab as an adjunct with Associate Professor Deb Steketee, executive director of the college’s Center for Sustainability.

Steketee said the class is a requirement for the 70 students in Aquinas’ Sustainable Business program. She said it was the first time the class has taken on a real-world business dilemma.

“That was a great experience for the students, to understand the nature of doing business today, particularly as we redefine the economy,” Steketee said.

Additional speakers addressed issues such as design and public policy. She said the class was a learning experience for the instructors, as well.

“It brought in interesting challenges for students and for us as educators, in rethinking the terms of teaching and learning,” Steketee said.

“We were learning together, introducing students to the innovation process, understanding team dynamics and also self-structuring. Bruce and I served as mentors and touchstones in the process.”

Thompson had turned to Robinson Cartage to consider the problem of transporting large and heavy turbine components to wind-harvesting sites.

Scripps said he cares about the environment, but is not “an environmentalist.”

“When I first started the class, we were talking about a logistics company that would provide green transportation for these wind projects because they are anything but green: Getting the components there, getting them constructed — it’s very ungreen,” Scripps said.

At Thompson’s request, Scripps made a presentation to the seven students, who had no knowledge of the trucking industry, and even brought them out to the company to see the equipment and the size of the loads. The students, dubbing themselves “Team Blade,” studied technology, competition, customers and regulation in the heavy hauling industry. Then they researched ways that Robinson Cartage could move toward an environmentally friendly approach.

“We never were able to calculate our carbon footprint,” Scripps said. “So they came up with a carbon calculator for me.”

One of Scripps’ customers, Burke Porter Machinery Co., which provided equipment for automotive testing, agreed to share details about a transportation job for which it hired Robinson Cartage.

Team Blade discovered that determining the carbon footprint for an individual delivery job involved a huge number of variables, from fuel type to driver habits to delivery method. The team was unable to uncover another company in heavy hauling that was able to provide emissions information to its customers.

In addition, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, or cap-and-trade proposal, now pending in Congress, could make measurement of carbon emissions an important business activity for the firm.

The students researched the environmental impact of various transportation modes — truck, rail, water and even air — and came up with formulas to determine the carbon footprint of each for any given job.

“Even more difficult to find was a calculator capable of providing emissions for a shipment sent by a combination of truck, rail and maritime,” Thompson said.

The calculator does not take price or time into consideration — both obviously important factors for Scripps’ business. Still, he said, the results have been useful in analyzing fuel usage.

“Each month, we’re measuring what our idle time is, our empty miles versus our loaded miles, our fuel usage. So we’re using that as tool to try to, first of all, measure. We’ve never measured those things before,” Scripps said.“We take that information and try to use that information to reduce the fuel usage. … Part of it’s educating drivers on their driving habits.”

Scripps said Robinson Cartage is one of the few heavy transportation companies of its ilk to sign up as a SmartWay Partner with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s SmartWay is a program aimed to help logistics and trucking firms reduce emissions, improve fuel usage and cut down on pollution.

Robinson Cartage has revamped its Web site at www.robinsoncartage.com to emphasize its new commitment to green business, he added.

“We’ve made some pretty good relationships out of all this — all this coming together: Robinson, Burke Porter and Aquinas College,” Scripps said.

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