Increase efficiency by running counter to trend

"Bigger is better" seems to be driving the design of new warehouses and distribution centers (DCs), as well as renovated dock areas, with the goal of handling more traffic and more types of work. However, Peter van Breda, director of warehousing and distribution with lighting products manufacturer Osram Sylvania Inc. ( finds the smaller-sized docks at the company's three strategically located DCs to be highly efficient as is.

Responsible for the distribution within Sylvania's General Lighting division, van Breda oversees the DCs in Ontario, Calif., Versailles, Ky., and Bethlehem, Pa. From those DCs the company serves a wide array of customers ā€” industrial and commercial distributors, consumer product accounts, original equipment manufacturers, and end users. The DCs handle more than 4,500 SKUs, with most of the product being made in the U.S.

"There is no question that the dock is one of the most important areas in the DC," says van Breda. "It's the point of in and out ā€” if you block the dock, you block the DC itself. My direction to the three DCs is to keep the docks flowing. When there's too much on the dock, something is not working."

Osram Sylvania reduced the size of its dock in order to keep traffic flowing. While normal off-loading and moving product directly to storage is handled on the dock, there are also cross-docking operations. Before anything else happens, van Breda insists that if a trailer gets unloaded, the DC must have the capacity to move it from the dock to where it has to go.

The Kentucky DC, where van Breda is located, is less than two years old and has been designed to run simply and flexibly. "Recently," he explains, "we had a lean exercise to reduce the time it takes to put product on the dock, stretch wrap, verify and put into a trailer. We brought it all down by about 50%, and intend to percolate the lean experience from this facility to the other two DCs."

Some moves undertaken include putting stretch wrappers in different positions than previously. In doing so, van Breda was able to take a little cycle time out of the process and create a bit more dock space, as well. He combined all the stretch wrappers, and instead of having people climbing from lift trucks and stretch wrapping, he now has one person running six stretch wrap machines and handling labeling.

"What we use on the dock in terms of equipment, especially for shipping, is a stand up lift truck, so that operators can go fast on and off instead of climbing on a sitdown truck, putting the seat belt on and then cruising around," explains van Breda. "The little dock trucks, as we call them, are much faster and more flexible."

One simple move with a big payoff made for the DC came from facility consultant Lou Cerny, vice president of consulting firm Sedlak ( The change was to install proper, easy-to-see-and-use aisle markings for staging product near shipping doors.

At Osram Sylvania aisle markings are etched into the floor with a yellow epoxy paint that stands out. "We had a company do the peening about eight months ago," says van Breda. "The lines are still there. We clean them with a scrubber sweeper."

Sedlak has also provided the Osram Sylvania DC with a solution for knowing where its pallets are when it comes time to load a truck. "Until now," notes Cerny, "everyone was painting a number on the floor and writing the location on a piece of paper or hanging bar-coded tags 15 feet in the air that were blowing around when it came time to scan them. Now etched metallic plates can be installed in a shallow hole bored into the floor so that it will be flush. It has a bar code and even when people drag pallets over it, they hold up very well. It supports the practice that says, 'Whenever I move a pallet, I scan the pallet and know where and what it is.' This allows you more readily to do that in dock areas."

Employee feedback during a lean exercise indicated that more bar code label printers were needed. The feeling was that the company needed faster access to certain dock reports. "We have 50 docks," explains van Breda, "and now every third door on the shipping dock has a computer with all the necessary tools so people can immediately see where we are."

Osram Sylvania uses information boards showing which way picks are going, which space is being loaded, how many lines have to be picked that day, and how many lines are still left over. It's updated every hour. For receiving, the boards indicate arriving hot loads. In its wave planning, the DC tries to have trucks to be loaded and unloaded at adjacent doors to alleviate congestion.

What's A Dock?
"Loading docks are utilitarian spaces that should be designed for function and durability. However, it is also important that they are designed to ensure the safety and security of their users and the users of other nearby spaces. This space type must be able to accommodate large vehicles, forklifts and pedestrian traffic."
ā€” National Institute of Building Sciences (

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