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The demand for package delivery continues to grow as consumers do more of their shopping online. At the same time, the supply chain is increasingly moving toward just-in-time delivery, meaning logistics companies have less room for error. The loading dock is at the heart of any distribution center, and optimizing loading and unloading is essential to maximizing overall supply chain efficiency. 

Most third-party logistics providers don’t believe they’re prepared to handle the increasingly tight labor market and the possibility of a shortage within the next few years. Efficiency in every step of the shipping process has quickly become extremely important and will be essential in handling these new challenges.

Here are tips that logistics and supply chain workers can use to optimize loading and unloading operations.

2020 Strategic Freight Management Trends

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Employee Training and Loading Best Practices

Start by ensuring that employees have the training they need to load and unload trailers efficiently.

Be aware of common mistakes that can cause inefficiencies in the loading/unloading process — primarily, wasted space in the trailer, inefficient loading practices and nonergonomic movements. Ensure workers lift with the legs and keep items close to the body. They shouldn’t lift anything heavier than 50 pounds by themselves or without the right equipment.

Minimize warehouse travel where possible. Strategies like cross-docking can ensure forklifts and employees are spending the least amount of time traveling through the warehouse as possible. This allows employees to be available to load and unload trailers as they arrive.

Load Testing and Monitoring Systems

There’s also advanced technology that shippers can implement to help ensure maximum efficiency in loading and unloading.

Planning solutions allow you to quickly build a load based on information like packages in the dock and the depth of the trailer. These systems can help ensure the most efficient loading possible, based on the capacity available. Some of these systems can also help your team make sure packages won’t buckle or be damaged during transport due to how they were stored in the trailer.

Dock management systems, paired with the right setup of cameras or automated sensors, can help managers keep track of multiple docks at the same time. This can cut back on the walking back-and-forth that is often necessary to visually supervise each door.

These systems can also help site supervisors keep tabs on how workers are approaching loading and unloading. This can help them to quickly identify when inefficient practices are being used — like, for example, employees using the wrong lifting technique. 

Better supervision can also help site managers find cargo that is being loaded inefficiently. For example, it could catch items being stored in chimneys rather than solid walls, as well as other places that are not appropriate or necessary.

Master control panels can also help cut down on walking by centralizing the controls for a given dock area.

Automated systems can use infrared sensors to detect the arrival of new trucks to the dock. Once one is detected, the system automatically activates the trailer restraint and dock leveler. With this procedure in place, workers will have access to the trailer as quickly as possible.

Upgrades to Dock Infrastructure

There are also steps you can take to make the infrastructure and equipment of a loading dock more amenable to efficient loading and unloading.

For example, you can use extendable or telescopic conveyor belts to simplify the transportation of items from warehouse to trailer. These conveyor belts unfold, extending the flow of cargo all the way from the warehouse to the truck being loaded, allowing staff to deliver packages and load them by hand.

Improved dock infrastructure can also help improve communication and the flow of traffic throughout the dock area. For example, loading-dock traffic lights can help control the flow of heavy equipment, like lift trucks, around the dock area, reducing the risk of accidents. 

Wheel guides, bumpers, mirrors and other guides can help drivers bring their trucks into the dock more quickly. These guides can also help make sure every trailer is properly aligned with the dock door and leveler, which can speed up the loading and unloading process.

Many pieces of common dock equipment can be replaced by automated versions — like pallet wrappers and mechanical levelers — which can free up a worker for more important tasks.

Where possible, also make sure equipment receives regular maintenance. Failure of a forklift or leveler can cause serious delays in loading or unloading, and can be avoided in many cases with the right maintenance schedule in place. 

Inefficient space can create massive bottlenecks at any step of the process. When reviewing a dock’s infrastructure and equipment, ensure you have the correct size dock leveler and doors for the cargo your team is usually moving. Older docks may not have doors wide or tall enough to properly service newer and larger trailers. 

Other efficiency-boosting upgrades — like improved lighting, airflow and weather-sealed dock doors — can also help keep the area comfortable to work in. Employee comfort has been demonstrated to impact productivity, and a dock that is too hot or too cold can easily reduce worker efficiency.

Listen to “Data Driven Shipping is How Shippers Gain "Shipper of Choice" Status” on Spreaker.

Strategies for Boosting Loading and Unloading Efficiency

The growth of online shopping and the move toward just-in-time delivery have put additional strain on logistics companies and distribution centers. As a result, speedy and efficient loading and unloading are more important than ever.

Distribution centers wanting to improve their efficiency can take a few different steps. Improved training and strategies like cross-docking can help boost productivity and reduce the amount of time employees spend traveling throughout the warehouse. Loading solutions and dock management software can help ensure the most efficient loading builds possible, and let supervisors keep tabs on more doors at once, as well as staff members. 

Better dock infrastructure can also help improve loading and unloading efficiency. High-quality lighting and weatherproofing can make warehouse and dock environments as comfortable as possible for employees, boosting their productivity. All of this can lead to a better working environment and more efficient operations.