Mike Pilgrim has been in the material handling industry for more than 40 years. Since 2001, he has served as president of Systems LLC, a manufacturer of loading dock equipment under the Poweramp, McGuire, and DLM brands. Pilgrim started out in the loading dock business as a sales coordinator. He quickly moved up the corporate ranks to become a VP of sales before joining Systems. He is also a former chairman of MHI’s Loading Dock Equipment Manufacturers (LODEM) group.
Q: How would you describe the current state of the industry?
A: The good news is industry shipments for dock levelers and truck-restraining devices are at the highest levels in the past 25 years. However, the current challenges over the past 15 months seem endless. The Covid era has raised havoc with every aspect of manufacturing and materials management. As an industry, we have seen leadtimes go from the standard four to six weeks to 20 to 26 weeks. This is due to a combination of components like microchips going from eight weeks to 52, cylinders from 12 weeks to 36, powerpacks from 12 weeks to nine months, tubing from eight weeks to 10 months, and so on.
Dock levelers use specialty steel, which is high-strength treadplate. Both leadtimes and supply have been adversely affected. Seals and shelters have been negatively impacted by foam and wood material shortages and inflationary cost. Offshore producers of curtain materials, electronics, and steel products face extended leadtimes and extremely high transportation costs in addition to logistical difficulties at the ports. Steel indexes for hot- and cold-rolled products have risen fourfold from late 2020 to late 2021. Labor here at home has been negatively impacted as we compete for an ever-shrinking workforce and by employees’ increasing need for flexibility during the pandemic. Although we are experiencing record demand and uncertainty of raw materials, our company has maintained a 96% on-time–delivery rate.
Q: Docks are among the most dangerous places in a facility, with a lot of lift truck traffic and vehicles moving in and out of trailers. How can technology make this environment safer?
A: A clear trend in the industry is an ever-increasing percentage of truck restraints, pushbutton levelers, and integrated control panels. They provide a clear trend toward a safer and more efficient dock operation. With a greater influence of logistical providers such as Uber Freight and companies levying demurrage charges for idle time their trucks sit at the dock, companies are routinely being evaluated on how safe and efficient the operation is. Added into this mix is a higher turnover rate and consequent influx of new employees. In response, companies are trending toward safe and easy-to-use pushbutton dock levelers and truck restraints with controls that include the operation of the dock doors and light accessories. Many companies are adding accent lights at the dock and door, which are coordinated with the “safe” status of the dock controller, producing [safer] conditions for the dock worker and those in the immediate area.
Q: What is the most significant change in dock products you’ve seen during your time in the industry?
A: I have been active in the loading dock industry for nearly 40 years. I entered the industry when truck restraints and pushbutton levelers were in their infancy. Clearly, ergonomics and safety has been a driving force, and so our industry has evolved, and these products are now the standard. Companies recognize the loading dock as the lifeblood of the distribution center, and the equipment installed should last 10 to 15, even 20, years. It is critical that companies look not only at the operation they have today, but also consider the growth and changing needs within their workforce for the future.
An example of this is evolving right now in our industry. In the past, the dock area was void of data that can help a facility monitor safety, energy efficiency, and productivity. Today, our controllers can incorporate IoT (internet of things) technology that allows management to wirelessly compile data such as dock availability, time to load, inactivity, and use of safety devices to maximize their efficiency. This is critical today, particularly in cases where food safety is important.
We recently completed a project where the sustainability people at corporate were able to monitor a remote distribution center where the doors were open with periods of extended inactivity. In just three months, this customer was able to reduce the time the doors remained open by half. That is a huge potential savings and just one of the ways the data produced at the dock can help management personnel become more efficient. As the company’s needs expand to include gate access, yard management, and driver information, the foundation of these new dock controllers expands to accommodate this larger ecosystem.
Q: More e-commerce and other fulfillment facilities are moving into urban areas. How will that affect dock designs?
A: Last-mile and urban satellite facilities have created new approaches to dock design. Most of these facilities will still require receiving of conventional truck-trailers for loading and unloading. Generally, these facilities will also accommodate straight trucks for both conventional loading and liftgate deliveries. For these applications, the dock, restraint, and seal interface will be different, and consulting with your dock professional is critical. In addition, sprinter vans are becoming extremely popular for deliveries, and service to these vehicles gets quite challenging. Many companies require modified access to get these vehicles into the building or the designated area where loading takes place.
Q: How has the growth of automation affected dock operations?
A: Automated truck loading systems exist in our industry. Many require modification to the trailer and warehouse floor along with a greater staging area. A technology that’s currently trending is automated loading with robotics or automated guided vehicles (AGVs). We have worked with several clients to interlock and monitor the status of these docks while sophisticated AGVs load or unload packages. Along the same line and a steppingstone to the future is advancing the technology to accommodate credentialing of equipment operators and the eventual arrival of autonomous vehicles.
Q: Your company is part of the Chamberlain Group, which specializes in “smart access solutions.” Can you explain what that means and how Systems fits into the group?
A: Systems joined the Chamberlain Group in 2017. At the time, we had our own iDock Connect solution for online dock analytics, which had some striking similarities to Chamberlain’s myQ facility software. The myQ product is very popular with residential users, having literally millions of consumers exposed to it on a daily basis. These same users are employed in warehouses and distribution centers, and therefore, having a platform that extends from residential use to industrial use makes perfect sense, and today myQ is a part of our smart control platform. Chamberlain Group is the leader in access management, so whether it’s your home garage, telematics in your car, gated home development, apartment access, or access to your industrial facility, the foundation of myQ is established and its ability to grow as your needs develop is assured. This is a huge competitive advantage for Systems.
Q: Are there any particular projects or products you are working on that you wish to share?
A: With a growing demand for online dock analytics, we wanted to expand this offering to all existing loading docks with the introduction of iDock Link. Link utilizes IoT technology to connect a loading dock online to myQ, regardless of what dock equipment is already installed. Sensors can track and report on activity such as the time a truck is present, use of the leveler or restraint, how long a door is open, forklift activity, and more. A facility can add these components with Link to its loading docks and still obtain the benefits of myQ Dock Management without having to replace all of its existing equipment.