Keep on Truckin’

May 01, 2003 9:30 PM  By

YOUR MERCHANDISE IS RESTLESS. It understands that its length of stay in your warehouse (or “turn”) affects its value. The more frequently your merchandise comes to a standstill, and the longer it remains immobilized, the less likely you will realize any profit from its sale. Names like “dog” and “overstock” are ascribed to these lingering consumables, unless these goods age well like vintage wine, rare publications, or Sophia Loren. Most of us, however, are dealing with products that are like pop icons; the younger the better, and the sooner they are gone, the sooner we can focus on the next phenomenon.

Anything that impedes product velocity is therefore likely to be nibbling away at your bottom line. Little wonder, then, that the ease of arrival and departure to and from your distribution center is worth considering carefully. Virtually everything we buy, store, sell, and consume is shipped by truck, in spite of the fact that the fuel consumed by moving a ton of product with a rubber wheel on asphalt is ten times that of a steel wheel on a steel rail. The difference is time, and in the immortal words of Poor Richard, “time is money.”

This seems too obvious to belabor, but every fulfillment and distribution transaction begins and ends with a truck having to back up to your building. Given how much energy we all expend in traffic trying to avoid any contact with trucks, it is revealing to consider loading dock layout in light of these desirable, controlled collisions. Try thinking of truck drivers as your employees when they are on your property.

So what can you learn from the driver of the last truck that rammed your dock, damaged the rig parked next to him, got stuck in the mud trying to make that difficult turn on the way out, and clipped the president’s car before finally leaving two hours late?

From the perspective of the driver’s seat, there are a number of very basic things to consider when evaluating the access to your loading dock.

THE APPROACH: IF YOU CAN’T SEE MY MIRRORS, I CAN’T SEE YOU! A 53-ft.-long trailer yanked around by a 24-ft.-long tractor is tough enough to handle. Backing one up is much more difficult. Be the driver for a moment and appreciate that your transmission is very complex, that your drive wheels are somewhere in the middle of a hinged contraption with six axles, and your view is constricted to that provided by a couple of dirty mirrors.

No driver can see what he is aiming for unless he is “backing to the left” (see the illustration at left). This one little characteristic of modern over-the-road equipment has far-reaching consequences for the safe and efficient use of your loading dock.

Very few dock aprons are blessed with the 150 linear ft. required to position a tractor trailer directly in front of the target door, straightened out, and needing only to back up without turning. Even if your building is one of the lucky few, it is likely that there are empty “boxes” parked in the last fifty feet or so, requiring the more common pop quiz of backing and turning at the same time. If the driver is not looking into his left mirror as he starts this maneuver, he cannot see his target.

As easy a concept as this may be to grasp, ask the next driver you meet how many times a day he is required to do it. Then start looking at loading dock configurations in your neighborhood. Listen for the phrase “Stupid drivers!” from your own frustrated dockworkers.

Make sure that your deliveries can be made by backing to the left when approaching your dock. It may require some interesting reconfiguration of driveways, the installation of some “No Parking” signs, or some additional paving. Just remember that the resultant damage, delay, and reduction in productivity are gifts of red ink that keep on giving if this basic requirement is ignored.

THE TARGET: AIM AT NOTHING AND YOU WILL HIT IT. While we are on the topic of what the driver can see, let’s try to shed a little light on illumination. Almost every exterior light fixture used on the face of a loading dock is incorrectly designed and poorly located.

Our same driver is now squinting into his mirror, attempting to align the near side of his trailer with the seal of your loading door, nearly 70 feet away. It’s ten o’clock at night and snowing.

If your conventional “wall pack” floodlight is where most electricians place them (directly above the door), your driver is either blinded by light blasting back into his eyes, or he is in the shadow of his own trailer. In either case, he cannot see his target, so he might as well be backing to his right!

Here’s a chance to take care of two problems at once. All good loading docks have overhangs that keep the weather away from the vulnerable seal between truck and building (if your dock was built without an overhang, you will recognize the hazardous nuisance of driving expensive merchandise through a waterfall).

So if you don’t have an overhang, build one. It is also a great place to mount a small fixture that will illuminate the wall surface between dock doors and allow your drivers to engage their targets. Low light levels are all you need, and reflective signage or even tape are inexpensive enhancements that you can add without much trouble or expense or having to redesign your facility.

THE FINAL MANEUVER: MOST DRIVERS HAVE ONLY TWO FEET. Our beleaguered driver finally has his mirror aimed at something he can see — a downward-sloping ramp that leads to a dock door in a pit about two feet deep. He has been here before. In the winter it fills with ice and in the summer it collects trash and breeds vermin. It is, by its very configuration, impossible to plow free of snow, and the top of the trailer crushes the top door seal flat before the floor of the box can connect with the floor. This means that the building’s forklift is not usable, and that the driver will have to wait until the whole load is carried off by hand.

Now the driver must back up until gravity causes the load to draw the weight of the whole rig back toward the dock, whereupon he must release the accelerator and engage the brake and the clutch at the same time. This awkward moment changes with every visit, depending on the weight and center of gravity of the load. If he hits the brake too hard or too early, the load will shift against the trailer’s door, making it hard to operate and possibly dangerous to offload once it’s open. Leaving this dock can be very interesting as well, especially if the snow changes to freezing rain.

Our trucker’s last stop was much easier. The pavement there sloped away from the building at about a 2% grade. The final approach did not require braking at all. Also, the floor of the truck and the floor of the building made a seamless connection, speeding the offloading. The departure was simple: The driver just released the parking brake and drifted away from the building.

Our driver has also noticed that loads packed onto his truck when it slopes away from the building tend to travel better as the product leans into the front of the box and doesn’t fall backward toward the door.

So we finally have engagement, and the truck is ready to offload. In my next visit we’ll step inside your building and look around for other likely impediments to efficiency, safety, and profit.

STEPHEN HARRIS is a principal of Lincoln, VT-based Harris and Harris Consulting and can be reached at (802) 453-6384 or harris@together.net.