To a Trekkie, space will always be the final frontier. But to those in this business, it may well be the loading dock. As a result of the never-ending push to rev up operations, many trucks today boast satellite technology. Distribution centers feature a dazzling array of radio frequency equipment, warehouse control and management systems and even voice technology. But loading docks haven't changed much since the Reagan administration.
It seems that's about to change. "A lot of our clients have been loading and unloading trailers the same way for 20 years," says Walt Swietlik, customer relations manager for loading dock manufacturer Rite-Hite Corp., "and they're very interested to see if there are ways to do it faster and more efficiently."
In fact, Swietlik seems genuinely excited about the latest technological advances: " It is a new frontier in some respects," he says. Investments in the dock typically carry a big payoff. "In some cases, it's a matter of increasing [productivity] by a couple of minutes per trailer," he says, "but in a lot of cases we're seeing load times decrease by a third or even a half. In some cases it's even more than that."
Driven by the need for speed, companies today are looking for loading docks that are safer, cleaner, more efficient, and more versatile than docks in the past. Some companies want to reduce product damage. Others are seeking energy efficiency—refrigerated warehouses, in particular, are looking to keep cooled air from escaping out leaky dock doors.
Then there's the time issue. "People are going to smaller and smaller shipments that need to be ontime, so dock space is generally a lot more tightly scheduled than it used to be," says Sean Hurley, manager, traffic and warehouse, at Pfizer's warehouse facility in Milford, Conn. "Nothing upsets a truck driver more than being kept waiting too long at your dock."
Dock of the future
As for their equipment options, companies today can choose from high-tech dock levelers, vehicle restraints, seals and shelters , stronger insulated and breakaway doors , and even central power systems that integrate the electronics for multiple dock areas into one central unit. Some companies are even making wholesale changes to their setups by installing bigger doors and dock enclosures.
It's important to note that the dock of tomorrow will likely be lower than the dock of today. Many industry experts recommend building new docks as low as 46 inches because improved technologies and suspension systems are bringing trailer beds to dock slightly lower than they used to. Industry practice has been to bring trailer bed heights right to or slightly above dock levels. Facilities with docks measuring 52 inches high face unloading challenges when trucks arrive with beds that are only 48 inches high—or even lower.
Some companies, in their quest to save on energy costs and cut the risk of insect or rodent infiltration, are buying accessories like maintenance inspection plates. These access plates, located at the back of the leveler, allow companies to handle inspections and maintenance (like speed adjustments or fluid level checks) in the building with a truck in position and the door closed—no moving trucks, no moving the door and leveler, and no need to make maintenance technicians crawl in front of the leveler into the pit. Users point to benefits like a reduction in total man-hours needed for service and improved safety—not to mention the potential energy savings. One refrigerated warehouse firm estimates that before revamping its maintenance inspection plates, it lost about one ton of refrigerated air out the door during each maintenance check. Those losses —which cost the company an estimated $800 per occurrence—are now history.
At the push of a button
Probably the biggest trend in the world of docks is the shift toward push-button operated levelers, which are replacing the mechanical dock levelers that formerly dominated the industry. Mike Pilgrim, executive vice president of dock manufacturer Systems Inc. of Germantown, Wis., points to safety as one of the main drivers behind the purchase of hydraulic push-button levelers. With manual levelers, the leveler could free-fall to the bottom of the pit if a truck pulled out of the dock prematurely, potentially propelling a forklift into the driveway. Hydraulic levelers typically feature a non adjustable velocity fuse that will prevent free-fall of the leveler should a truck depart too early. That's an important safety consideration given that approximately 65 percent of levelers are not sold with vehicle restraints.
"The money that people are spending to ensure a safe, efficient, clean and versatile loading dock area is much greater than it was in the past," says Pilgrim, noting that better than 50 percent of dock levelers today are push-button models. "That says people are looking for equipment that's lower maintenance and is a lot more flexible and safe overall."
The pressure to run an efficient loading dock operation could escalate greatly in the upcoming weeks once a proposed hours of- service regulation from the Department of Transportation takes effect. The proposal went to the White House Office of Management and Budget on Jan. 3 and is expected to be released on or before May 31. The regulation could take effect as early as 60 days after the release. (See "Coming soon: The Hours,")
"Unfortunately, the content of the rule is a better-kept secret in this town than the war plan in Iraq," says Pat O'Connor, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who is the legal counsel for the International Warehouse Logistics Association. "It's been very closely held because the guess is industry will be in an uproar when it comes out."
The regulation is expected to limit the number of hours that a trucker can be on the clock during a seven-day week. In many cases, companies will have to hire more drivers to compensate for the lost time. Observers also believe that the new regulation will call for an on-duty time limit of 14 hours a day—one hour less than the current 15-hour standard. And the speculation is that the regulation will require two hours of mandatory break time during that 14-hour window.
"The theory is that we'll go from 15 hours currently, down to 12 hours of maximum on-duty time," says O'Connor. "For the warehouse that has its own trucking fleet, it puts pressure on that side of the business. But it also affects the inbound side because now carriers will put more pressure on the warehouse to get trucks unloaded. The time that a driver sits in line to get a truck unloaded is still on-duty time under this rule. We fear increased pressure from carriers on warehouses to get those trucks unloaded, and the potential for surcharges certainly exists."