Whether at the retail store or the distribution center, resources are increasingly scarce, and challenges are more numerous than ever: not enough people, not enough space, compliance issues, conflicting priorities - the list goes on. Meanwhile, drivers are often waiting to unload or load. They too frequently find themselves at the bottom of the facility priority list, to the detriment of the overall supply chain.
In the big picture, the driver shortage is a priority. And in fact, the driver shortage has recently been confirmed as the most significant problem faced by the U.S. trucking industry, according to a survey by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI).
The American Trucking Association (ATA) reports that annual driver turnover reached 90% in 2017, and it projects a 50,000 driver shortfall by the end of the year. If current trends hold, ATA foresees a potential shortage of 174,000 drivers by 2026. Truck freight volume is expected to grow by 3% to 4% annually through 2023. Rising transportation rates and a lack of capacity could translate into higher costs and higher difficulty in scheduling trucks for when they are needed the most.
The importance of dock operations in solving the driver shortage
Within warehouse facilities, we can do a lot to ease the driver shortage. According to Dr. Walther Ploos van Amstel of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, trucks sit idle to be loaded and unloaded a shocking 55% of the time in Europe. "If we can reduce the time it takes to load and unload, we can immediately solve the truck driver shortage problem," he said recently at the FEFPEB conference in Maastricht, Netherlands.
In the U.S. trucks also are forced to play a waiting game. The Detention Time Study Survey (2016) reported that 65% of reefer trucks are detained 11 or more hours per week for loading or unloading. This wait is in addition to the commonly accepted 2-hour allowance for loading or unloading. As the report summary notes, “in the trucking industry, detention has traditionally been defined as any time spent waiting to load or unload in excess of two hours, thereby if a driver spends five hours waiting to load at a dock, the first two hours would be considered free, while the remaining three would be classified as detention.”
Solving the problem from the inside out
Ploos van Amstel sees technology and trading partner collaboration at the dock as being critical to easing the driver shortage. Too often, he noted, antiquated processes endure, such as the driver stopping, walking to the window to be assigned a door, getting back into the truck, and finally backing up to the door. And then possibly returning to the window for paperwork.
Increasingly, he sees a future where technology will allow the truck to communicate remotely with the distribution center to estimate time of arrival. A door assignment can be transmitted as the truck approaches the destination.
New technologies aside, however, there are plenty of things that stores and warehouses can do right now to improve turnaround time and help get trucks back on the road.
Collaborate with trading partners. “Your customer delivery times, wait times, delays, how they order, are more important than your own transportation strategy,” Ploos van Amstel said. "It is important to view the whole supply chain so that we can speed up the process."
Honor appointment times. “Proper planning coupled with honoring appointment times could solve many of the problems that carriers and drivers experience today,” observed the Detention Time Study Survey summary.
Two hours is just a suggestion. Ploos van Amstel stresses that while the 2-hour window is commonly used as an average, it shouldn't be used as a target. The emphasis should be placed on turning around loads as quickly as possible, and as a safety factor to delay processing easier loads.
Have the shipping/receiving space in good order. To process a load efficiently, there needs to be room to position product as it moved on or off the truck, such as empty staging space at the warehouse. At retail, ensure that empty pallet locations are available in the appropriate back room coolers, for example, and verify that access is not blocked by merchandise, bales of cardboard, or stacks of pallets. Likewise, ensure that a fully charged pallet jack and staff as needed are available.
Have the load in good order. Getting the load to the dock on time is one thing. Having merchandise in good order to facilitate the unloading process is yet another. It goes without saying that there should be no surprises such as deviation in quantity, quality, weight, and so on. And finally, unit loads should be stable so that they can be handled quickly and efficiently. Attention to packaging can make a big difference as to whether pallets are unloaded quickly or whether they must be restacked at the door. The use of RPCs is one way to help ensure stable loads that help get trucks back on the road sooner.
What’s in it for me?
Quicker load processing translates into better transport utilization for the whole supply chain. While it might be the right thing to do, facility operators understandably strive to achieve performance targets that may or may not consider trucking delays. The Detention Time Study recommends the use of incentives as one way to get closer alignment between truck and dock operations. A collaborative approach to incentivizing dock operations might be exactly what gets drivers back on the road in a timely fashion.