As manufacturing and retail organizations seek to streamline operations, many business leaders are homing in on the loading dock as an area to improve efficiency. After all, the smooth movement of materials throughout a facility begins and ends with efficient loading and unloading, making the dock an ideal place to apply advancing equipment and technology.
The next opportunities in dock efficiency include improving access to trailers, which can eliminate bottlenecks in getting products in and out the door; implementing better safety controls to improve the speed and reliability of dock safety systems; and automating processes throughout the warehouse to alleviate congestion on the loading dock. All of these steps can add up to considerable savings at the point of material transfer. Here's a look at each area.
ENSURE PROPER ACCESS
Walt Swietlik, director of customer relations and sales support for dock equipment maker Rite Hite, says the first step in planning a more efficient dock is making sure you have proper access to the trailers you're loading and unloading—that is, ensuring that your dock is designed for the safe, secure, and efficient transfer of products in and out of the trailers. Although that might sound pretty basic, many operations fall short of that standard.
There can be many reasons for that. As one example, dock doors present a problem in many buildings—especially older ones, where doors may be narrower and shorter than the trailers that are backing into them.
"An overhead door that is too short or too narrow is an instant bottleneck to the proper transfer of product," Swietlik explains. "Along with the efficiency issues come product damage issues and safety concerns."
Building new doors that are taller and wider than the trucks and trailers being serviced eliminates those bottlenecks, allowing for a smoother loading and unloading process. Dock seals and shelters have also improved in recent years, making the installation of new, better-fitting doors even more attractive, Swietlik adds. In the past, enclosures designed to allow full access to trailers did not provide the tightest seal around the dock, he says, allowing heated or cooled air to escape and leaving workers, equipment, and products exposed to the elements. Some companies were hesitant to sacrifice energy efficiency and employee comfort in the name of process efficiency. Today's enclosures offer a better seal, eliminating that trade-off.
"Improvements in [enclosure] technology over the last three to five years have allowed customers to have their cake and eat it too—full access to the backs of trucks and trailers with minimal 'white space' around the door opening and the back of the trucks and trailers," Swietlik says.
MAKE SAFETY A TOP PRIORITY
For many, the next opportunities come from installing faster, more reliable safety equipment.
As technology improves, the steps required to activate loading dock safety systems are reduced. Push-button equipment is a prime example, Swietlik says, as it improves the speed and reliability of safety processes. For example, a hydraulic or push-button dock leveler is activated automatically with the push of a button, in contrast to a mechanical dock leveler that has to be put into place using a chain. He says push-button equipment is fast becoming the norm on loading docks.
The next evolution is interlock or sequence control systems, in which safety measures are mutually dependent—that is, operators can't accomplish B without first accomplishing A. Such technology solves problems that can occur when workers take shortcuts as a way to get the job done faster—for instance, not using a dock lock on smaller loads, figuring that the chances are slim a truck will pull away in the time it takes to unload just a couple of pallets. That sounds appealing until you start compromising safety, which will negate any time savings in the long run.
"Interlocks force a company-specified sequence of operation that, when used on a regular basis, will lead to improved efficiencies," says Swietlik. "For probably 98 percent of clients, that's what they are moving toward. That is what many would consider an efficient dock in today's world."
AUTOMATE FOR SUCCESS
Automation is a buzzword across the industrial spectrum, and for good reason: Automated processes can provide the ultimate in efficiency, safety, and productivity. Today, automated trailer loading—via AGVs (automated guided vehicles) that use laser and sensor technology—is a case in point. AGVs help increase accuracy and reduce staffing requirements because fewer people are needed on the dock. John Clark of Dematic Egemin, a global logistics and material handling systems provider that makes AGVs for truck loading, says trailer loading in particular is gaining more attention from customers that have realized accuracy and efficiency gains from using AGVs elsewhere in the facility.
"Customers are saying, 'We've improved everywhere else, where can we go now?'" says Clark, who is the company's director of marketing. He cautions, however, that automated trailer loading is more complex than processes like automated picking, which means different types of AGVs may be required. For one thing, AGVs used on the loading dock must be more robust, often incorporating a higher level of sensor technology in order to adjust the path of the vehicle into the trailer. They also need to be more durable, as they don't always follow a smooth path but may have to go up and over door plates, for instance. Though it's a different type of machine, efficiency is still the goal.
"Any time you have automation, what you're trying to do is remove human touches," Clark explains. "If you can remove touches within your supply chain, it will increase accuracy and throughput, and provide a more complete solution."
Matthew Butler, director of solution strategy for retail and supply chain solutions company JDA Software Group, emphasizes the need to view automation from an even broader perspective. He points to automated case picking as a way to improve movement through the facility and alleviate congestion on the loading dock.
High-volume case-pick operations such as those found in grocery and retail DCs are a good example. In such environments, automated case picking can produce shipment-ready pallets by anticipating stacking requirements and supporting in-process palletization/wrapping of the case-pick pallets for stability. At a lower cost of entry, Butler says, many companies are looking to leverage well-established voice-activated technologies for this purpose. He adds that augmented reality is an emerging technology that is garnering interest, too—and one that today can drive efficiency and accuracy during picking, but tomorrow may provide more direct instruction during pallet-building.
Automation in all its forms is one of the hottest areas in industrial settings, so it's no surprise the loading dock is benefiting from it as well. And when considered alongside more traditional methods of improving efficiency at the dock, it leaves supply chain managers with myriad opportunities to make headway.
"Companies are constantly looking at where they can [remove costs] next," says Clark. "They need to figure out how to maintain a competitive advantage. This is a good way to do that."