On the Docks

July 1, 2010
Minimizing cost of ownership can help maximize loading dock value.

The material handling sector, as with most businesses, is working its way out of the economic challenges of the past several years as 2010 progresses. To meet rising demand, many operations will be building new distribution centers (DCs), adding to their existing facilities, or replacing equipment that had been deployed beyond its useful age in an attempt to squeeze every last drop out of the company's capital investment.

As the RFPs go out and the quotes come in, it is a good idea to look beyond price and focus in on the issue of lower cost of ownership (LCO). What will owning that piece of equipment cost the operation beyond its purchase price? How will that investment pay off for the operation? This cost of ownership analysis reflects the investment's true economic impact for any company.

This consideration is especially true for loading dock equipment. Considering that this equipment handles five-ton forklifts making hundreds of trips a day, the loading dock experiences its share of maintenance problems.

The ability to achieve LCO is built into the loading dock equipment, and intelligent selection can lower maintenance and operating costs for years to come.

Choosing the Right Dock Equipment

Dock equipment manufacturers may offer to fly in prospective customers to tour their facilities. In some cases, they provide a video tour of their manufacturing operation. This provides a valuable opportunity for customers to view how the equipment they may be buying is manufactured.

There are some basic things to watch for when touring the manufacturer's plant. How many coats of paint are applied to the product? Is the product, or any of its components, stored outside at any point? Both issues affect the product's ability to resist corrosion. The tour also provides customers with a chance to view individual components, giving them an idea of the amount of steel going into the product and the quality of production.

Four main categories of equipment provide forklift safety, effective truck access and energy savings: dock levelers, dock doors, truck restraints and seals/shelters. Many choices exist within those families of products. The right choices are determined by the volume and type of traffic at the loading dock.

Dock levelers bridge the gap between the dock and the trailer. Choices include mechanical, air, hydraulic and power-assisted/hybrid versions. They can be mounted to the dock floor, in a concrete pit, or to the curb of the loading platform.

Pit-mounted levelers have always been difficult to install and maintain. Traditional installation involves using shims to position the leveler, but it is often done improperly. When pit-mounted levelers are uneven with the dock floor, relentless traffic can cause structural failure that results in expensive service and replacement. Newer leveler versions have adjustable pads for pinpoint positioning. Combined with more steel and structural strength to the rear frame, these levelers offer longer, more trouble-free service.

Truck restraints prevent premature departure of the truck or trailer; they are available in an array of manual and powered designs with the ability to capture the rear impact guard on the truck/trailer or to restrain the vehicle's wheels. These can be mounted to the driveway, to the dock wall, or can be installed under a leveler to provide a clean dock face.

Criteria for the selection for either levelers or restraints can include frequency of unit operation and the types of trucks that pull up to the dock. Generally, a good investment is an additional 10,000 lbs of leveler capacity beyond what has been calculated for the operation. It is impossible to predict how requirements may change in the future, and the extra capacity can cover these changes.

Safety on the Dock

There are other factors to consider when it comes to dock equipment. Pit-style levelers are often equipped with safety barrier lips. When the leveler is set even to the dock floor, this vertical extension of the leveler lip along the dock edge prevents forklifts from driving off the dock.

The indicator lights that work with levelers and restraints and dock lights are available with LED lamps. As well as providing brighter illumination, they can last up to ten times longer than standard incandescent bulbs.

LCO also means finding reductions in other parts of the operating budget, especially energy. When a truck is at the dock, thousands of HVAC dollars can be lost if the gap between the trailer and the dock wall is not sealed.

Dock seals are perhaps the most vulnerable part of the dock equipment mix. If traffic volume is high, consider units with steel framing at the side and headers. Seals with extra durable pleats offer longer life. These seals are designed to move with the trailer as it is loaded and unloaded.

Dock doors also sustain their share of abuse from forklifts. For most doors, the addition of flexible bottom door panels ensures that the doorway is continually covered. For other doorways, a full impactable dock door is necessary because of heavy usage and abuse. Because these doors can be quickly reset when impacted by a forklift, they are very cost-effective and prevent energy loss. The doors can also be designed to protect their own gaskets against tearing.

Other dock components team up to provide additional safety and maximize LCO. For example, dock guard barrier gates can stop a 10,000-lb load moving at 4 mph. Having this proven safety product on the dock helps reduce the occurrence of accidents resulting from lift trucks, pallet jacks and pedestrians falling off the dock when the overhead door is open.

Master control panels provide a means to coordinate dock equipment functions. Rather than separate controls for each dock component, the panels ensure that the equipment deploys in a proper sequence for greater dock safety and less damage to the equipment.

Preventive Maintenance

Perhaps one of the most effective preventive maintenance programs is to anticipate the upkeep costs demanded by the equipment.

Lubrication is crucial to leveler and restraint performance. Not doing it properly or in a timely manner can lead to costly repairs and replacement.

It is important to inspect the number of lubrication points on the equipment, as some levelers can have up to 30 points. Find out where these are located. Are they difficult to access?

Cleaning goes beyond appearance. For pit-style levelers and many styles of restraints, policing the areas in and around this equipment is crucial for proper operation and long life. Pieces of pallets or loose nails can puncture hydraulic hoses and affect the action of mechanical parts.

Glazier Foods, a Houston-based food distributor, has installed vertical storing dock levelers in their DC because they are mounted to an easy-to-clean continuous shelf and store in an upright or vertical position rather than in a concrete pit. In the food business, cleanliness leads to positive quality audits and more professional appearance when customers tour the facility.

Spare parts availability is essential to ensure minimal service interruptions due to equipment down time. In evaluating alternatives, consider what kind of parts must be on hand, what they cost and how often they typically must be replaced.

One main benefit of impactable dock doors is that it's necessary to keep only a few spare parts on hand. Many DCs report that using standard doors requires maintaining a supply of spare door panels. These occupy both considerable physical space and a considerable portion of the maintenance budget.

Tracking Service Cycles

Another consideration for lowering cost of ownership and operating costs is the use of software to track service cycles for better equipment maintenance. On-board computers are becoming standard on lift trucks, enabling data gathering to determine actual equipment usage. It makes sense that the equipment the lift truck rolls over and passes through can benefit from similar technology improvements.

A dock can see a lot of traffic in a 90-day period at an active facility, operating as many as 1,000 deployment cycles. It's important to make sure the leveler is properly adjusted. At the Quad Graphics DC in Menomonee Falls, Wis., where they can handle 70 trucks a day on a very tight schedule, the levelers deploy in seconds, right where they need them. It makes a big difference in getting shipments out in time.

Dock equipment manufacturers are developing software that can track real-time equipment usage. The programs can read activity off of the master control panel or other controllers operating the levelers and restraints and off of the door sensors; this builds a usage profile. The system can notify the maintenance department when equipment needs attention, allowing workers to catch potential problems before they grow larger and more costly. The program diverts crews away from equipment that is used less frequently.

Though everyone is looking for the economic sky to be sunnier in the coming months, no one expects capital budgets to explode any time soon. Success in times like these requires smart management. When it comes to setting up the loading docks needed to handle the traffic ahead, it's important to consider what the equipment costs now and what it won't cost over its useful lifetime.

Michael Brittingham is marketing communications manager with 4Front Engineered Solutions, Carrollton, Tex., a manufacturer of loading dock equipment.