The modern dock includes interlocks, a series of mechanical and electronic safety measures that prevent anything but the optimal sequence of events. For example, to open the door, the vehicle restraint must first be positively engaged. To operate the leveler, the door must be open. A food, beverage or pharmaceutical company might design its sequence to minimize infiltration of air, dust or critters.
A facility in hot climates might choose this setup simply to conserve air conditioning. On the other hand, managers might like to leave doors open on occasion to get some fresh air, but interlocks will only allow this once after a physical barrier is engaged to prevent people or equipment from falling off the dock. Swietlik says such a barrier should offer a minimum impact rating of 10,000 pounds at 4 mph.
For those customers concerned with securing access to the back of the trailer, energy efficiency and/or sanitation, dock enclosures may be designed to prevent even a sliver of outdoor light from creeping in. Taking it one step further, the interlock sequence might also include a step where photos or videos are captured to verify security and product condition after transit.
Because dock equipment is increasingly powered by electricity and not elbow grease, the construction of the dock must allow for necessary wiring. Swietlik recommends collaboration between the customer, dock equipment provider and general contractor to ensure all relevant measurements are considered.
“You want it to look professional when it’s done, so you don’t want conduit sticking out since someone forgot it when they poured the concrete,” Swietlik says. “It’s all very easy to take care of if it’s addressed early.”
Simply ensuring trailer, door and leveler are in place does not ensure a safe dock. Visibility and communication are now critical during loading and unloading. Thanks to a lower profile, LED lights offer illumination without presenting a collision risk for equipment or people. They might also incorporate motion sensors to detect inactivity and automatically shut off after a set time. To further enhance safety, light sensors can detect when a lift truck is backing out of a trailer and automatically dim so as not to blind the operator or the dock attendant as a lift truck reverses toward them.
“If everything is adequately and clearly labeled in such a way that with a single scan can capture all information about the product, dock operations will be more efficient,” Wheeler says. “Supplier management is always something that can be done better.”
The GS1 bar code standard is a key tool toward the goal of improved supplier management and dock efficiency. By standardizing the way virtually any data field is encoded, these labels enable the quick exchange of critical information, like lot, expiration date, country of origin, catch weight and more.
“In the past, if you wanted to do supplier management, it used to involve creation of elaborate routing guides,” Wheeler says. “You’d present the supplier with the specs for a label and all relevant data fields, and in some environments this makes sense, but for many others it’s a very onerous set of requirements to put on your supplier.”
With standardized labeling in place, it then falls to dock hardware and software to effectively capture the labels’ data. Whether a linear code or multiple bar codes, a scanner paired with the right software can read multiple codes in one scan. Rugged headland devices are common in the receiving and sorting of inbound goods for putaway. It’s a workflow that has a lot of variability, Wheeler says, including damaged or noncompliant product, and is often the one area where warehouse management system (WMS) transactions aren’t always repetitive.
Handhelds with plenty of screen real estate offer the option to present more data and communicate more clearly to dock attendants, who might like to call up an item master or other order information on the fly. These devices might also be equipped with extended range scanning or a camera to document damaged product and file a claim right on the device. The majority of operations do some label printing for putaway, using a range of stationary or mobile tabletop printers, or wearable printers.
For lift truck operators, purpose-built, vehicle-mounted devices are usually the most productive and operationally safe form factor. If work requires the operator to dismount, handhelds are a good choice. As handheld screens get larger, they become more viable for lift truck use, Wheeler says.
A third option is a rugged tablet, which can be mounted or removed from the lift truck to provide the best of both worlds. The tablet can then be tied to an extended range scanner when on the truck, or use an integrated medium-range scanner when walking.
Wheeler estimates more than 90% of dock processes rely on bar codes to identify and control the movement of inventory. There is some growth in passive or active RFID to track trailer locations, he says, but more and more carriers are using geo-fencing.
Geo-fencing is a process by which a trailer’s location can trigger alerts so that, for example, as soon as it crosses a certain threshold in the yard, people and systems inside the building can know how to prioritize and prepare accordingly. In private fleets, Wheeler predicts trailer-mounted sensor technology like passive and active UHF or low-energy Bluetooth will increasingly serve as beacons to ensure workers are loading the right materials in the right trailer.
The dock of the near future will also be defined by more detailed and comprehensive data capture, Wheeler says. He describes a current product offering consisting of an appliance affixed inside the dock to look into the trailer, whether inbound or outbound. Using video, 3D sensors and analytics, the solution collects and relays data to dock managers or transportation managers, presenting them with real-time metrics of what’s being loaded and unloaded.
“This is a part of the process that hasn’t been monitored before,” Wheeler says. “Previously, the only way was to walk the dock and watch how the work is being done. It was anecdotal and laborious to track.”
E-commerce is driving the need for granular dock data, as more enterprises need to ship direct to customers who assume same-day delivery and visibility into an order’s status and execution.
“There are lots of service commitments they have never faced before,” Wheeler says. “Ten years ago, when they designed the WMS, the facility and the docks, they were designing to a different service commitment. Now it’s about operating faster and with perfection.”
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