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Shipping and Receiving Docks Are Getting More Attention and Technology

With our current supply chain stress, moving goods in and out of facilities as quickly as possible is critical. For office, warehouse, and apartment buildings, shipping and receiving docks are a critical piece of infrastructure that is often overlooked. New designs and technological innovations are helping to optimize these crucial facility operations even as supply chain disruption hamstrings the global economy. 

It isn’t just warehouses, distribution centers, and industrial facilities that need shipping and receiving docks, many different types of buildings rely on shipping space to welcome deliveries,  offload products, load furniture, and haul trash. Often the shipping dock is the busiest part of an office building or shopping center. Multifamily properties are receiving so many packages and deliveries they’ve practically become distribution hubs themselves. 

Trucking powers the global economy, finding better ways to accommodate them is key to making real estate function better. Creating better loading docks that fit seamlessly into existing urban environments is an intricate process challenging even the best designers. While warehouse and distribution centers have garnered most of the attention of logistics engineers and supply chains managers, facility managers are beginning to see loading docks of all types need to be upgraded. 

“There’s no question that companies are realizing the significance of the dock, and the difference between uptime and downtime out on the dock,” Walt Swietlik, director of customer relations and sales support at Rite-Hite, told Modern Materials Handling. “Everyone is working with this ‘on-demand mentality’ that everything has to work, period. There’s just no room for failure or interruption.”

Shipping docks are complicated because trucks come in all shapes and each dock area is different. A shipping dock’s surface area, grade, height, and accessibility all determine the type of truck they can accommodate. Trucks hauling shipping containers need 55 inches of dock height, straight trucks only need 44, flatbeds need 52. A driveway approach that is at an incline or recessed from ground level complicates things even more. Dock leveler bridges have long been used to adjust to each required height but take up valuable space. 

Trucks also need enough space to maneuver. Nowadays the longest tractor-trailers reach nearly 75 feet, meaning the standard 110-foot approach is no longer adequate. A driveway leading to a shipping dock should be twice the length of the longest tractor-trailer combination visiting the dock, according to American Trucking Association recommendations. The staging area, just inside the dock, must also be carefully designed. If you’re unloading a 53-foot trailer, you need a staging area that can accommodate at least 53 feet of product. Stacking near the dock is forbidden due to safety concerns. All of this is to say the cookie-cutter approach to dock design doesn’t work. Each building’s shipping and receiving dock is unique, making leveraging technology for optimization difficult. 

Several companies are developing “smart dock” technology to enhance the critical flow of goods and products from shipping and receiving docks. A company called Rite-Hite developed a warehouse management software that uses a network of connected vehicle restraints, audible and visual alarms, dock doors, and more to deliver real-time monitoring of any connected device. 

OSHA reports more than a quarter of all warehouse injuries occur at the loading dock, making safety a priority. Technology is enhancing safety in the area known for buzzing activity. Manual operation is being rapidly phased out in favor of automated vehicle restraints, levelers, and overhead doors. Using technology to automate those processes keeps workers out of harm’s way and clearly indicates loading and lock status to drivers. An automated dock control system must be triggered in the exact sequence to make sure no safety procedures are skipped. Automated vehicle restraints can even be integrated into some building management systems. Motion sensors monitoring the dock alert workers of forklift activity and other types of traffic. 

Dock controls are being incorporated into master control panels connected to networks that can collect and report data directly to warehouse management systems or yard management systems. WiFi-enabled smart controls manage dock operations, bringing the Information Age into shipping. The interconnected system uses IoT to display real-time counts of how many trucks are actively being loaded, how quickly they’re being loaded, who’s loading them, where they’re headed, and much more. Companies like 4Front Engineered Solutions install control panels for each dock to manage all shipments in and out of each dock, sending that data to a centralized controller for analysis.

For multifamily shipping and receiving docks, parcel unloaders could be a game-changer. Every apartment community is getting dozens, sometimes hundreds of packages and parcels dumped on them every day as e-commerce shopping continues to grow. Why not use a machine similar to a dump truck that feeds into a sorter? Companies like Honeywell, Siemens, and Southworth Products are using machinery and robotics to make parcel unloading as fast as possible. Eventually, the technology could become small enough to fit into communities or office buildings to help alleviate the crush of deliveries every property deals with daily. Complicated contraptions that require special truck parts may soon give way to robots doing the hauling. Practically every major shipper is working on automated loading through robotics–some of which can already load or unload 400 packages an hour. 

“The biggest challenge in our world is: Every single package is different in size, shape, weight, color, material,” Ted Dengel, managing director of operations technology at FedEx’s ground-delivery unit, told Bloomberg. “It makes it a very tricky problem.”

No matter how big or small, in an office or at a truck yard, all eyes are on shipping and receiving docks as the global economy continues to struggle with supply chain issues. In the world of logistics, endpoints are as important as distribution centers and shipping docks. Every landlord should be thinking about how delivery drivers interact with their property to get things where they need to be. Moving more packages with the same real estate footprint is a challenge technology is helping solve, making all forms of shipping and receiving docks safer and more efficient.

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