Automation Solutions at the Loading Dock

In the ever-evolving landscape of industries, automation has become a cornerstone of sustainable growth, safety, and efficiency. From manufacturing plants to warehouses, businesses are embracing automation to help combat supply chain disruptions, increased demands, labor shortages, outdated facilities as well as the ongoing pressure to stay competitive. One area where automation can make a significant impact is the loading dock, a critical yet oftentimes overlooked link in the supply chain’s flow of goods.

Barriers to Automating the Loading Dock

When facilities first consider implementing automated warehouse systems into their operations, whether incrementally or starting from the ground up, certain areas and functions may first come to mind. Specifically, highly manual repetitive tasks where advancements in automation have been around for decades such as storage and sortation, conveyors and picking. However, the same repetitive, manual nature is true for the “final frontier” of many facility’s technology footprints - the loading dock. So, why aren’t more facilities automating their loading dock solutions?

Most, if not all goods, pass through a facility’s loading dock. With forklifts crossing a single loading dock position around 300 times per day, disrupting the flow has serious impacts to a facility’s bottom-line. And because each position presents its own set of unique challenges, such as trailer type, drive approach slope, door opening size and existing equipment, loading dock automation is not a “one size fits all” solution.

Rise of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)

At the loading dock, automation can take the form of extendable conveyors for versatile unloading, ATLS (automated trailer loading systems) and more. Today, industries are seeing a growth in Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) usage for trailer loading and more.

The global AGV market is estimated to develop at a CAGR of 10.2% from 2021 to 2031 (Business Wire). One main challenge with the rise of automated guided vehicles is ensuring their compatibility with loading dock design, equipment and controls application due to their need for a consistent environment and potentially temperamental sensors. Successful integration requires connected communication between the loading dock equipment and AGV, enabling a coordinated dance of machinery and technology to load and unload efficiently.

Thankfully, there are several loading dock solutions already offered today that support the increasing adoption of AGVs as well as other automation technologies.

Loading Dock Design

Each business has unique demands and flow of their material transfer process. The loading dock is no different when it comes to ensuring a seamless sequence of operation, inside and out the facility. One of the biggest pain points in planning for the loading dock at the end of an automation project is there are often small details that were overlooked that now are large and costly delays.

New construction rework of a loading dock can cost upwards of 10s of thousands of dollars per dock, add months to a project, and greatly extend the time of ROI on automation implementation. To help guarantee a successful completion of a project end-to-end consider the partners needed.

Loading Dock Equipment Applications

If choosing to upgrade or remodel an existing operational loading dock, current design and equipment may hinder the performance of automated solutions. For example, a dock leveler must match an AGV’s specification to help prevent stability and sensor problems. Additionally, a trailer should be supported by a stabilizing vehicle restraint (and in the case of dropped trailers, trailer stand) which helps minimize vertical and horizontal movement.

If not addressed, improper loading dock design and equipment application can lead to operational downtime, ruined product and damage to the Automated Guided Vehicle. Considering an AGV costs up to $200,000, saving time by a rushed retrofit is a benefit to no one.

Loading Dock Controls Applications

In automation, communication is number one, specifically between the loading dock and AGVs. Determining current processes and the level of automation (or human involvement) will help with establishing the controls application that is right for your facility now and down the road.

Your controls not only connect with AGVs, but the loading dock equipment as well. This connection of shared data can help with safety, efficiency, preventative maintenance, and all around more knowledge to make better informed decisions in the future.

Rite Partner of Choice

Strong partnerships play a key role in the coordinated effort of successful loading dock automation. Requiring the involvement of loading dock experts, AGV suppliers, loading dock control applications as well as Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) integrators, their collective expertise ensures a holistic approach to the project's success. Tailoring automation solutions to the facility's needs and ensuring effective communication between loading dock equipment, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), and AGVs are critical steps to avoid costly redesigns and operational hiccups.

As companies embrace this transformative technology, it's critical to plan thoroughly, collaborate with the right partners early on in the project, and adapt equipment effectively. As the leader in loading dock equipment since 1965 and with a track record of many successful automation projects, Rite-Hite is committed to guiding businesses through their automation journeys by expertly understanding:

  1. Critical Loading Dock Design Considerations
  2. Loading Dock Equipment Application Criteria
  3. Loading Dock Controls Applications
  4. Industry Supply Chain Technologies

To learn more about Rite-Hite's automation offerings and to experience a tailored approach at our world headquarters in Milwaukee, WI, contact a representative today.

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