Dock Efficiency: Last Things First

June 1, 2004
To ensure the uninterrupted flow of material promised by Just-in-Time and radio frequency data collection, check your product’s points of ingress and egress.

There’s an engineering doctrine, the Five-P Principle, which says, Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. That applies to dock efficiency or building international space stations. An integral part of your plans for efficient movement of goods has to be in the design and placement of machines and employees in the dock area, or material transfer zone as it is more accurately described. "Dock" sounds like a place where something is parked, certainly not the case in today’s distribution centers.

"We’ve long used the concept of the dock as a material transfer zone based on the way our customers came looking for equipment," says Walt Swietlik, customer relations manager, Rite-Hite Corp. "Clients came to us with the mind-set that all of the dock equipment should work together as the material flows from the trailer through the building."

Swietlik says from the equipment manufacturer’s point of view, efficiencies the manufacturer might not have thought of are noticed by the customer. He cites the use of the company’s vertical-storing hydraulic dock leveler, popular in refrigerated applications.

The leveler stores inside the building wall, creating an efficient seal, and is easy to clean. "We’ve had this product as kind of a niche offering for the food industry," he explains, "but what we’ve learned is, as many companies are becoming more concerned about security and productivity, the product has seen a surge in popularity."

The reason for that popularity is because the product offers an efficiency that standard levelers do not. Typically, a driver is required to stop the truck, get out, open the trailer doors, then back into the loading zone. With a vertical-storing hydraulic dock leveler, the driver can back right to the building and the doors can be opened by someone other than the driver.

"We’ve helped clients design buildings with safe and secure transfer zones that prevent exposure to the outside elements and speed the loading/unloading process," says Swietlik.

Design for efficiency

To make your material transfer zone as efficient as possible, you have to begin with a thorough understanding of your product and what it takes to create an efficient loading zone. While these sound like rather obvious points, the reality is that many companies inherit warehouse space designed for other industries. Also, product lines change constantly so whatever configuration of equipment you arrive at, make sure it is flexible.

The time for design is before the concrete is poured, says Mike Brittingham, marketing services manager, SPX Dock Products, manufacturers of Serco, Kelley and TKO dock products.

"We have an educational program we’ve established with the American Institute of Architects for new buildings," he explains, "to inform architects about the key elements in designing the dock area." He says the program teaches them the things associated with the loading dock that lead to efficiency — not just how to choose the right leveler or restraint.

Material transfer zone efficiency centers on space and time. Unless you have an unending supply of money, you have to sacrifice one to get the other. For example, in your planning process, think of efficient ways to move truck trailers to the dock, and restrict their movement, as efficiently as possible.

Also, anything you can do to improve working conditions for employees inside and outside the building, such as improved lighting and air conditioning, will lead to higher productivity. These improvements should include better communication among employees and management.

Don’t think of regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as a hindrance in warehouse planning. Regulations can help you in design and configuration. It’s more cost efficient to work within the regulations and to use the regulations as guideposts than it is to apply them after the fact.

Finding the efficiency

When it comes to efficient planning of the dock area, some industries seem to be more savvy than others. The food industry, for example, sits up and pays attention when equipment manufacturers talk about contamination issues. You get the attention of consumer products companies when the subject is product damage.

Once you have the design, says Brittingham, it’s a matter of knowing what the application of the loading dock area will be. Knowing how you’ll be operating in the facility will help the equipment manufacturers recommend the right equipment.

Dock efficiency boils down to a couple things. Since most loading/unloading is done with lift trucks, in a large sense design, meaning proper door height and size, and dock leveler size, is directed by your lift truck traffic. Having the proper leveler, activation system and capacity for the transition from building to trailer can determine the speed of material transfer.

Another major impediment to efficiency is training — or lack thereof. With the trend toward more push-button equipment on the dock, however, and the corresponding control sequences that go with it, equipment manufacturers are building pieces of equipment that follow a logical sequence with clear instructions. Automation on the dock certainly leads to more efficient operations. Master control panels, where all operations are in one place, cut down the walking time for operators and saves money in the building process since all electrical wiring comes to a single point.

"And the systems can be interlocked," says Brittingham, "so that all the equipment operates in sequence." He adds that there are systems available with infrared truck sensors working in conjunction with the trailer restraint. The sensors register the presence of the trailer, engaging the restraint automatically. Once properly engaged, door opens and the dock leveler extends automatically.

No matter how much space a warehouse offers, there never seems to be enough. Responding to that challenge, equipment manufacturers like Raymond Corp. are building products that function better in tight places. "Efficient maneuvering and simple, ergonomic controls make a hand truck more productive," says Jeff Leggett, marketing director for counterbalance and walkie pallet truck products at Raymond.

Stretch wrapping has always been an efficient way to contain a load. Now, placement of the stretch wrapping machine is becoming a way to improve efficiency on the dock.

"One of the things we [stretch wrapping machine manufacturers] have noticed is a lack of efficiency at the point on the dock where the lift truck driver has to exit the truck, start the wrapping process, then wait until the wrapping is finished," says Peter Vilardi, marketing director, Orion Packaging Systems. As an equally inefficient way of handling the problem, sometimes a person is dedicated to operate the stretch wrapper so the lift truck operator can go for another load.

The more time-efficient and cost-efficient solution is found in new machinery coming onto the market. "We’ve taken the film cutting and clamping mechanisms from more expensive, automated machines," says Vilardi "and put them on semiautomatic machines."

This new breed of machine ends the need for someone to wait while a load is being wrapped. "These stand-alone machines are great for small- to medium-size operations where the equipment has to be flexible," says Vilardi.

He notes that equipment manufacturers are called in during the dock-planning stage of building construction more often when automated systems are being installed. "For smaller machines," he says, "most of which are portable, we don’t get called in until late in the game."

For automated systems, equipment manufacturers have extensive questionnaires that must be completed, focused on creating the most efficient use of the space available.

Another aspect of efficiency is reliability. Downtime is something to be avoided, so the cost of machinery, says Vilardi, is not always the motivator when it comes time to buy stretch wrappers.

The object of the exercise in the dock area is to keep the product moving. Efficiency is lost when an employee has to stop to do anything to a carton. Often, on the incoming side, bar code labels must be scanned and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags read. These processes are being automated to keep the goods flowing.

"We work with the customer to place equipment as close to the point of entrance or exit as possible," says Randy Neilson, director of sales and marketing, Quantronix Inc. "All dimension and weight information is electronically collected by our CubiScan machine, then transferred to the host computer. Sometimes it’s most efficient to gather the data as the carton comes through the door and other times it’s best to gather it as soon as the carton is sealed."

The dimensional and weight information collected is used to automatically create bills of lading and can be used for advanced shipping notices.

Another way of gathering data, particularly palletload weight, is to put scales on the lift truck. This is not new technology; however, what is new is a way to do it without wires. Jon Hayes, product manager at Mettler Toledo Inc., says, "Waiting in line for floor scales to weigh loads before shipping slows the process."

Working with Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks, Mettler Toledo has integrated its scales into the truck before it leaves the Mitsubishi factory. The scale terminal uses radio frequency communication to eliminate wires and a touch-screen color display terminal to make the operator more productive.

Finding help

There are numerous formulas available to calculate time standards and space requirements when planning your warehouse and its dock areas. Equipment manufacturers can tell you, down to the second, how long it takes to do this or that. Associations such as the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) have libraries filled with helpful books and literature. One particular publication you should review (available from WERC’s bookstore) is The Time, Space & Cost Guide to Better Warehouse Design. The book is filled with time, space and cost calculations and standards. Written by Maida Napolitano and the staff of Gross & Associates, the book uses photos, graphs and illustrations to help you through the warehouse planning process. It includes a glossary of terms frequently used in the design stage of warehouse construction.

Hours of service

Since January, new safety rules issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have had the potential to contribute to an increase in trucking rates and inhibit dock efficiency — so its critics claim. Depending on your shipping policies, this could impact you at both ends of the supply chain.

As defined by the new rules, permissible operator drive time has been increased from 10 hours to 11. On-duty time, however, has been decreased from 15 hours to 14. After which, truckers must log 10 hours of down time, instead of the former eight. The biggest impact appears to be that all driver activity will now be counted as on-duty time. The time that drivers spend loading and unloading freight and sorting or transporting pallets for exchange will be included as on-duty driver time, reducing time spent on the road, thus increasing the cost of shipping.

How much the hours-of-service rule will cost in terms of dollars and manpower is still open to speculation. The National Small Shipments Traffic Conference reports that carriers, especially those in the truckload sector, are predicting increased costs of five percent or more due to lower productivity.

Pallet pooling and pallet exchanges are being viewed as a way to ease the pressure of these new rules and improve transportation as well as dock efficiency.

IFCO, a pallet-pooling company, offers a program called InXchange, which eliminates traditional one-for-one pallet exchange programs in favor of pallet tracking and retrieval in full truckload quantities.

"A key to the success of this program," explains Hachtman, "is that companies are recognizing the pallet as an asset. Our tracking program allows them to check the status of their pallets and avoid costly delays if pallets are not available."

Even small companies that thought pallet pooling was not viable will begin to feel pressure from the hours-of-service rule, says Dave Mezzanotte, president, CHEP USA, making pallet pooling more affordable and palatable.

"Our online ordering program increases the efficiency at the dock as well as in the front office," he says. "Palletized loads, in general, mean more efficient handling and reduced product damage. Tie that in with RFID for real-time inventory warehouse management, and your throughput improves many fold."

Mezzanotte feels RFID, with its benefits of accuracy and ability to keep the material moving when it enters the building, will bring great efficiencies to the shipping and receiving parts of the supply chain.

"We’ve been actively involved in RFID, particularly global standards, for five years," says Mezzanotte. "When such standards are achieved and adopted, dock efficiency will take a major step forward. Meanwhile, the programs we offer our half million customers to keep 2.5 million pallets and containers moving go a long way toward achieving those goals."

Hours of service is a subject Swietlik is hearing a lot about, too. "It would seem, in a perfect world," he says, "the trucking companies would like to see the trailers turned around [at the dock] in an hour or less."

And while this might be a reasonable goal in some instances, he adds, in others it is not, and that’s when the trucking companies start billing the shipping companies.

"So the benefit of having a piece of equipment that might save 10 minutes might not seem like much for a single truck," says Swietlik. "Multiply that times 100 drivers on the road and you begin to see the savings." MHM

Beat the Heat

Anyone who lives or works in the Sunbelt will tell you summers can be brutal — especially if your job involves loading and unloading hot trailers on a dock. After a few hours, temperatures in the trailers can easily reach sweltering. And problems with heat go beyond employee discomfort; they can also affect the quality of temperature-sensitive products.

These are some of the issues national pharmacy chain retailer Walgreens experienced at its distribution centers in the South.

A large number of Walgreens’ products fall into the health and beauty aids category. Items like makeup, over-the-counter drugs and candy take a serious blow in the heat. They lose their quality if not kept within a specific temperature range. So, when summer hits the South each year, Walgreens is challenged to find methods for protecting its delicate product line.

The pharmacy chain began a search for a solution that would preserve the quality of its merchandise, and keep its dock employees comfortable.

One method it considered was to simply crank up the air conditioner in the buildings and add cooled air to the trailers. An expensive approach. Blasting the AC still didn’t provide all the cooling that it sought for complete product protection and employee cooling.

So Walgreens, led by Randy Lewis Sr., senior vice president of distribution and logistics, looked for another solution. "In addition to more air conditioning, we considered awnings — a more traditional solution," says Lewis.

His search led him to WorldCover total weather protection systems. "The awnings worked, but they cost more than the WorldCover shades and required a bigger structure," Lewis explains. "One of the things we liked about the shades was that they didn’t require poles, a potential obstruction to our drivers."

This system of shade canopies provides substantial temperature reduction in the dock area. It brings interior trailer temperatures down by as much as 30 percent.

"The WorldCover canopies were lighter, cheaper and more durable than awnings," says Lewis.

James Thomas, WorldCover CEO, says when Walgreens approached the company, WorldCover was presented with a new challenge. "It needed something that could total 53 feet with no poles. We worked with our designers to come up with a solution," he explains. "We installed two prototypes at their Waxahachie, Texas, DC and figured we’d hear back from them in about a month."

Instead, Walgreens was on the phone to WorldCover just a few days later looking to order more canopies.

Today, Walgreens has installed the canopies in three of its southern DCs, each with unique qualities. The Florida locations, for instance, must be durable enough to resist hurricane-strength winds. One location in Dallas had to be coordinated with a sprinkler system. Walgreens now has plans to roll out the canopy systems in all its future DCs located in the South, as well as retrofit others in the region.

For More Information

If you would like further information on this subject, contact any of the following companies:


• Gross & Associates,

• IFCO Systems,

• Mettler Toledo Inc.,

• Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks,

• Orion Packaging Systems,

• Quantronix Inc.,

• Raymond Corp.,

• Rite-Hite,

• SPX Dock Products,

• Warehousing Education and Research Council,

• WorldCover,