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Creating More Floor Space on Loading Dock and Retail Back Room

Posted by IFCO Systems
August 10, 2017

It seems like space is almost always in short supply at busy shipping and receiving locations in the perishable supply chain. While improvements are often feasible to increase storage density through narrow aisle or flow-through racking and other approaches, the prospects for warehouse managers looking to increase dock space and the number of dock doors are often bleak. Dock area constraints can lead to chronic congestion problems as shipping throughput increases over time. Likewise, retail stores also feel the pinch as managers juggle increased volumes associated with sales growth, even though there may be pressures at the same time to reduce back room space to expand the sales floor.

Congested docks contribute to inefficiencies such as double handling, misplaced products, mis-ships and shipping delays. At the store, crammed coolers and back room can lead to in-store "out-of-stocks." Additionally, congestion and visibility obstructions can increase the risk of collision in a fast-paced dock environment. Several steps can be taken to increase available floor space in the dock area, however, resulting in improved efficiency and safety. These steps include but not limited to: 

Various forms of cross-docking
Depending upon your operation, creative approaches to cross-docking can help keep the loading dock less cluttered. Simply put, cross-docking involves the inbound and outbound movement of products without them going into storage. When it comes to easing dock congestion, we also wish to avoid having to park or stage them on the dock.

 For example, if we are cross-docking store orders that have been assembled at a different facility (say, for example, i.e. cheese and butter products, or fresh meat products) and consolidating them onto trailers with the fresh produce, it is all too common to unload the trailer and stage it on the dock prior to reloading particular stores on the designated outbound route. A preferred approach is to move the cross-docked product trailer to trailer, rather than to have to stage it onto the receiving floor. To ensure that cross-docked orders come off of the trailer in the right sequence, some operations collaborate with nearby terminal facilities to have merchandise unloaded and then reloaded back onto trailers in the needed shipping order. This technique is a variation of off-site staging centers utilized by auto manufacturers to organize and ship parts to the assembly plant on a just-in-time basis.

Another example of cross-docking is where stores are receiving full pallet quantities of a single SKU, for instance, strawberries or watermelon. A storage trailer with the product can be located in a door. The loader can again move the required pallet from trailer to trailer as needed, to avoid staging it on the floor. 

Hot loading
Hot loading, also known by other names, is an approach whereby the order picker loads the assembled products directly onto the trailer when the picking assignment is finished rather than staging it onto the floor. For example, as 12 order pickers each finish building their two pallets for a particular store order, they bring them to the dock and load them directly. A hot loading strategy requires considerable coordination, with the empty trailer needed at the dock before the store picking is complete. The result, however, can be a delightfully empty loading dock in the midst of a high throughput operation. 

Increase order frequency
One effective approach to decreasing backroom congestion at retail is through increased order frequency. Because orders arrive more often, fewer pallets are needed, and less backup stock is required until the next delivery. Other benefits of more frequent deliveries include improved freshness and the reduced multiple handling of product in and out of coolers. 

Think vertically
Another way to reduce congestion on the loading dock is to make better use of vertical space. One common approach has been the use of storage racks above the dock doors. Opinions about such racking are mixed due to floor space lost to racking uprights, and the need for any outbound pallets staged in them to be very stable for safety reasons.

Another important aspect of vertical thinking is the height of assembled pallets. The quickest way to achieve a 15% increase in loading dock capacity is to build pallets 15% higher!

Improved build height means fewer pallet positions are required not only on the loading dock but also on the trailer. With the growing popularity of increased order frequency, however, maintaining pallet build height has become extremely challenging. There are fewer full layer quantities, and order pickers can find it difficult to stack tall, stable pallets when conventional, non-standard corrugate packaging is involved. When fresh produce is packed in RPCs, however, it is much easier to build sturdy pallets to the prescribed height. Stable, non-leaning and non-overhanging pallets stacked with RPCs can be staged more tightly together on the dock. They can also be loaded more quickly, freeing up lanes in a timelier manner for the next wave of stores to be picked.

Don’t accept dock congestion as a fact of life. Consider approaches such as cross-docking, hot loading and RPCs to improve your operation.