Loading Dock 2.0

Sept. 1, 2008
The loading dock of the past is no more. The modern version requires up-to-date equipment and planned maintenance.

Techies sometimes use the term “Web 2.0” to describe the mentality shift that occurs as the Internet transforms business operations.

In material handling, a similar shift is occurring as economic factors and the continuing push for productivity affect the way product moves in and out of facilities. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just about automation. No matter how automated a facility becomes, overall speed and flow depend on the efficiency of one area—the loading dock.

“Virtually everything coming into or leaving a facility does so over a loading dock,” says Steve Greco, director of international sales and marketing at Blue Giant Equipment Corp. (Brampton, Ontario). “Anything that disrupts this flow of goods–design flaws, equipment failure or accidents–dramatically reduces the productivity and profits of the entire company.”

Nevertheless, “the dock is often a neglected area,” says Michael J. Boyle, national sales representative at Pentalift Equipment Corp. (Buffalo, N.Y.).

That’s why Walt Swietlik, customer relations manager at Rite-Hite Corp. (Milwaukee), says businesses should change the way they think about this vital area. No longer can the loading dock be seen as just the neglected, cluttered area in the back of the building.

Today, a loading dock is more accurately described as a “material transfer zone (MTZ),” says Swietlik. “The MTZ reaches from the drive approach well into the shipping/receiving/staging area,” he explains. “In the past, many simply thought of this area as the loading dock.”

Reasons to Retrofit
Changes in both trailer design and load configurations are two primary reasons for this mentality shift. “Because of fuel costs, companies want to squeeze as much as they can into trailers,” says Swietlik. “To maximize interior space, trailer walls have become thinner.”

Boyle says the 8-foot-wide trailer is not the standard-size trailer anymore. “More trailers are 8 feet, 6 inches wide, allowing two pallets to be placed side by side to cube out the trailer and maximize the amount that can be put in a trailer,” he says. “And, the inside dimensions of trailers have increased so companies can ship more.”

Some trailer manufacturers have also switched to low-profile tires to squeeze out more cube space, according to Swietlik. More trailers are also using air suspensions, which can cause bed heights to fluctuate as lift trucks move in and out. Furthermore, shippers have reconfigured loads to take advantage of increased payload space.

More payload capability, however, often results in a mismatch between trailer and loading dock, which results in productivity-pinching bottlenecks. “Older buildings usually have 8-foot-wide by 9-foottall docks that now have to deal with 8 ½-foot-wide by 13 ½-foot-tall trailers,” Swietlik explains.

Changes in the way product flows through the manufacturing facility, warehouse or distribution center are other reasons to consider equipment upgrades. “Many equipment changes are due to the noticeable shift to crossdocking,” says Stephen Sprunger, vice president of sales and marketing at 4Front Engineered Solutions (Car rol l ton, Texas). 4Front manufacturers the Kelley, Serco, LoadHog, TKO Doors and APS Resource brands of dock equipment. “The faster product moves, the more durable, easy to operate and intelligent dock equipment needs to be,” he says.

“If a company is growing, it may need more docks,” adds Ray Strumbly, vice president of sales and marketing at Timbers Kovar Co. (Mentor, Ohio). “Changing product lines, wider loads, different loading and unloading processes and outdated equipment are all reasons to retrofit dock equipment,” he says.

How to Start
“Creating safe and efficient bridges between facilities and the trucks and trailers that pull up to them is no easy task,” Greco acknowledges. “The large variety of freight, vehicles, frequency of use and loading conditions makes designing and equipping the docks for top efficiency and safety a daunting challenge.”

“These are the days when productivity equals profits,” says Sprunger. “Companies can improve productivity simply by upgrading old equipment, paying attention to overall maintenance and selecting powered equipment with lower lifetime costs of ownership,” he says.

The modern loading dock area can be described as a “material transfer zone,” which reaches from the drive approach well into the shipping/receiving/staging area.

Sprunger stresses the need for integrated controls at loading docks. “The powered leveler, restraint, lights, fans and heaters in and around a loading dock should be all integrated,” he says, with master control panels sequencing each piece of equipment.

Importantly, dock doors have to accommodate larger trailer sizes. “Eight-foot-wide dock doors have increased to 9 feet wide,” says Boyle. “They are also going to 10 feet in height to allow greater access to the full width and height of the trailer.”

With 9-foot-wide doors, “side-byside palletizing is simplified, and the potential for product damage is significantly reduced,” adds Greco. “Nine-foot-wide doors can also accommodate the unplanned ser vicing of many over s ized loads.”

Greco says the most versatile door size is 10 feet high. “Tenfoot- high doors will accommodate trailers of all heights, up to and including high-cube trailers,” he explains. “Truck berths should be at least 12 feet wide, and 14-foot widths should be considered if space and budget permit,” Greco adds. “The wider the dimensions, the greater convenience there is for storage and staging.”

Dock equipment, such as levelers, seals and shelters, must also change. Boyle recommends going from a 6-foot-wide leveler to one that is 7 feet wide for increased safety when loading the 8-foot, 6-inch-wide trailers.

Boyle also recommends upgrading from mechanical to hydraulic dock levelers. “Hydraulic levelers offer better safety and performance,” he says. “Equipment will work consistently, there will be less downtime, less maintenance costs and it will be safer for the dock attendant.”

“For those with small budgets, converting a mechanical dock leveler to a hydraulic operation may be the best solution,” suggests Greco. “Converting it may show a savings of 30% to 50% compared to replacing an existing leveler with a new hydraulic dock leveler.”

Blue Giant offers universal hydraulic dock conversion kits that help improve safety and operator ergonomics by eliminating the bending and pulling actions required by a mechanical dock leveler release chain. Hydraulic levelers also reduce moving parts that can lead to costly repairs and excessive operating costs. In addition, they are better equipped to service trailers with air-ride suspensions, according to Greco.

Critical Maintenance
In modern loading dock areas, productivity, maintenance and safety have an unbreakable bond. All three affect one another.

“In the business of distribution, dock equipment is the lifeblood of the company,” Boyle says. He recommends facility managers conduct preventive maintenance at least four times a year for mechanical levelers. “Clean out the pits, adjust spring tension, oil and/or grease the dock leveler, check for parts that are wearing and replace them before they fail.” He adds that it’s important to have critical parts in stock to avoid downtime.

Boyle also stresses the importance of knowing the specific adjustment requirements of dock equipment made by different manufacturers. “Make sure the people you hire are knowledgeable about the equipment,” he advises. “They may not know all the nuances and adjust them all the same way, which could create a problem with a component not adjusted correctly.

“If a company has its own maintenance personnel, they should be educated by the original manufacturer of the dock equipment,” he continues. “If it uses an outside company for maintenance, it should make sure the company’s employees buy parts direct from the manufacturer and have the installer do the service.”

Swietlik recommends companies in Canada and the northern part of the U.S. clean dock equipment, including leveler pits, at least twice a year to prevent rust caused by winter’s harsh conditions. “If you give the dock equipment a good cleaning in October or early November before the snow starts to fly, it will make a big difference year round,” he says. “In the fall and spring, equipment should be cleaned, adjusted and lubricated.”

“Inspection is a part of any good maintenance program,” adds Boyle. “It’s critical to long-term operational reliability and safety. Good maintenance increases productivity, pays for itself and reduces accidents.

“In warehousing and distribution, the whole idea of the building is to move product in and out,” says Boyle. “The most important elements are not the exterior look of the building or the fancy offices. It’s the heating, lighting and loading docks. Without those, you can’t perform.”

Dock Maintenance Checklist
Timbers Kovar Co. offers a maintenance checklist as a guide to help material handling managers preserve the life of equipment, reduce repair costs and keep products flowing smoothly through the dock area. Ray Strumbly, vice president of sales and marketing at Timbers Kovar, says managers should implement a planned maintenance program that includes inspection and maintenance in the fall and spring.

For trailer restraints, the company recommends inspecting the following elements:

  • Dock bumpers
  • Fasteners and welds
  • Control box
  • Inside signs
  • Outside light box
  • Outside signs
  • Conduit and wiring

After inspecting trailer restraints, the following maintenance should be performed:

  • Clean restraint operating area
  • Test operation
  • Lube per manufacturer’s instructions
  • Adjust per manufacturer’s instructions

For dock levelers, the company recommends inspecting the following elements:

  • Dock bumpers
  • Control box
  • Rear hinges, lip spools and pins
  • All welds
  • Stringers and front and rear headers
  • All cylinders and linkage
  • Conduit and wiring
  • Main springs or power module
  • Ramp control or hold-down assembly
  • Weather seal

After inspecting dock levelers, the following maintenance should be performed:

  • Clean pit, rear hinge area and lip hinge
  • Test operation
  • Lube per manufacturer’s instructions
  • Adjust per manufacturer’s instructions

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