Warehouse operators have turned material handling into an art form, developing intricately choreographed systems for whisking goods and materials through their DCs. But all that efficiency inside the building won't count for much if the trucks outside face delays navigating a bustling yard. That's led many to look at what they can do to make operations more efficient outside the four walls of the DC.
We talked to industry experts about the best ways to tackle the yard management challenges facing busy DC operations. What follows are their top five tips for easing the congestion.
Tip 1: Have drivers check in with a smartphone app when they arrive on site. One way to speed up the flow of trucks through a yard is to take advantage of the powerful computer most drivers now carry in their pockets—the smartphone. And these days—perhaps not surprisingly—there are apps for that. For example, as part of its software platform, Montreal-based yard management system (YMS) developer C3 Solutions offers a free smartphone app for drivers that lets them swiftly check in when they arrive for an appointment.
"When he shows up, he can just scan his smartphone, verify his load, and allow the facility to track him within the yard," said Greg Braun, senior vice president of sales and marketing and a partner at C3 Solutions. "Then the facility can say, 'Drop your trailer in this area and pick up another,' or 'We're not ready for you yet.' It's faster than in the old days, when gate guard would say, 'Tune your CB to channel 15, and we'll let you know when the door is ready.' Now, you can just send a message via the app saying, 'You're up next!'"
When drivers check in with their smartphones, they can also activate their global positioning systems so that yard personnel can track their whereabouts. That information gives warehouse managers the ability to plot the location of every truck on their lot, avoid the time-intensive process of searching for vehicles that may be parked in the wrong spots, and fit more drop-offs and pickups into each day.
"It's a visibility play; the problem is not so much the yard as the scheduling," Braun said. "If you could do more live unloads instead of drops, you wouldn't need a bigger yard or more doors. You just need better organization."
Tip 2: Encourage drivers to show up on time by tracking their performance. Many DCs rely on a carefully orchestrated schedule of truck arrivals and departures to keep goods moving smoothly through their facilities. When drivers show up late for appointments, it can throw a wrench into that machinery. Yet many warehouses lack the precise records they need to hold specific fleets or drivers accountable.
Once drivers realize there are no consequences for late arrivals, the problem can escalate. "When drivers are not held accountable, they know that even if they're late, [the receiver] would never do anything to deny the freight. So they show up at the end of the day and [the facility] still accepts the load because it's important inventory," Braun said.
Automating the check-in process changes all that. When drivers use smartphone apps to notify the yard of their arrival, the facility can capture the data and use it to track their performance over time and generate scorecards for drivers or companies, C3's Braun said. Armed with these records, a DC manager can go to a supplier and show it that Driver X habitually misses appointments or that the company's trucks arrive at unexpected times, whether it's too early or too late.
Often as not, that will bring an end to the behavior. "When you put this discipline in place and hold people accountable, they tend to fall in line," Braun said.
Tip 3: Prioritize deliveries to avoid backups and waiting lines at dock doors. To prevent peak period holdups, it helps to prioritize and "pre-assign" trucks to certain docks in advance of their arrival, said Eric Lamphier, senior director for product management at software developer Manhattan Associates Inc., which offers a YMS as part of its supply chain application suite.
Among other advantages, sorting out dock assignments ahead of time allows facilities to deal more efficiently with vehicles with special handling needs. For instance, a truck carrying temperature-sensitive goods may have to be sent to a "chilled" or "frozen" dock, instead of an ambient-temperature dock. Another might need to be directed to a dock door that's equipped to handle cargo in floor-loaded boxes instead of on pallets. A third truck may be doing a "live unload," dropping off just a portion of its cargo before heading to a different site. "These are unique scenarios that you need to route differently through the facility," Lamphier said.
Prioritizing trucks is particularly crucial for companies whose operations rely on just-in-time (JIT) deliveries. "Nobody wants a buildup of product, either in the building or in the yard," Lamphier said. "But neither does anyone want a large buildup of drivers outside, honking their horns and wondering when they can drop off a load."
Tip 4: Keep your robots busy. For a growing number of companies, setting priorities has become more than a matter of seeing that a truck carrying frozen foods is sent to the right dock or that a vehicle with raw materials urgently needed for production gets bumped to the head of the line. These days, they may also have to factor in the technology used at the dock itself.
For that, they have the robotics revolution to thank. "Robotics is coming online like a freight train," said Eric Breen, director of the 4Sight Systems logistics software suite at Assa Abloy Entrance Systems. One result is that a number of facilities have equipped certain of their warehouse docks with high-speed robotic material handling or loading equipment. To get the most from these expensive assets, the facilities will almost certainly prioritize deliveries to keep those docks as busy as possible, Breen said.
Tip 5: Augment human performance with computers in the yard. While automated equipment and robotics can go a long way toward streamlining yard operations, companies can realize even greater gains by augmenting human performance with technology tools, according to Matt Yearling, president and chief executive officer of Pinc Solutions.
These tools could be anything from wearable devices to the technology Pinc may be best known for—flying drones that allow users to identify distant assets as the sensor-equipped aerial vehicles hover above the yard.
Among other advantages, drones can help fill in a conspicuous visibility gap for companies that track the end-to-end movement of their freight: the time that trucks spend in the yard. Businesses have sophisticated systems in place to monitor the whereabouts of vehicles while they're on the road, "but [trucks spend] a vast amount of time idling at the source or destination, and people lose track of that," Yearling said.
As for other ways facilities are putting technology to use in the yard, some are installing automated kiosks at their front gates, replacing the guards once posted at the entrance to check drivers in with radio-frequency identification (RFID) scanners. Not only can these self-service kiosks make check-in faster and more accurate, but they can also eliminate language barriers that might otherwise exist between drivers and gate attendants.
Long dismissed as a simple expanse of pavement, the DC yard is now being seen as an untapped opportunity to gain operating efficiencies through the magic of automation. With the growing use of smartphone technology, robotic loading equipment, and automated kiosks, that vision is fast becoming a reality.