Loading bay innovations are taking safety, security and efficiency to a whole new -potentially multi-storey – level. Johanna Parsons reports.
Alongside vast global supply chains, complex intralogistics systems and technical final mile deliveries, the movement of goods in and out of the warehouse is sometimes overlooked. But the loading bay is a crucial pathway that can have a drastic effect on a logistics operation. And the same factors that are pushing the limits of wider logistics processes are also driving innovation and potentially transforming the shape of the loading bay as we know it, with plans afoot for multi-storey loading.
In the here and now the priority for many logisticians is safety. “It’s a disturbing fact that loading bays are dangerous places,” says Andrew Georgiou, general manager of Stertil Dock and Door Products. “Barely a day passes without news of yet another accident involving vehicles, loading bay operatives and even members of the public. Such accidents frequently result in life-changing injuries and, tragically, fatalities.”
He gives an alarming example, “one of the UK’s leading supermarkets was recently fined £1.6 million following an accident in which the victim was trapped between a loading dock and a reversing lorry. Company size offers no protection against this problem,” he says.
It’s no surprise then that safety is a key driver for much of the latest loading bay technology. Stertil’s Combilok vehicle restraint system has been developed to reduce the risk of unintentional vehicle movement by holding vehicles in place until loading or unloading is completed.
The Combilok is a tubular structure installed above ground that guides the wheels of an incoming vehicle into the correct position in front of the dock. A wheel block then restrains the rear wheel to prevent premature drive-aways or vehicles creeping forward.
“Of course, the most effective means of preventing accidents in the loading bay is to design a system that eliminates the need for personnel to be anywhere near a reversing vehicle. To that end, the Stertil Combilok is activated and controlled from within the safety of the warehouse or distribution centre. Also, during operation, the Combilok is fully interlocked: the loading bay door cannot be opened until the Combilok is in position and the Combilok cannot be released until the door is closed again and it is safe to drive away. Red and green lights on the control panel also ensure that operators can clearly see if the vehicle restraint is still in use.” Georgiou points out that the traffic lights system is universally understood, and “overcomes any language difficulties that may arise with drivers delivering from all over the world”.
Georgiou says the system has been popular. “The UK’s most prominent online retail specialist purchased its first Combilok vehicle restraint system in 2013. Unsurprisingly,” he says, “it was an instant success and the company now has almost 1,000 Combiloks working around the clock to provide safety and peace of mind to drivers and warehouse staff alike.”
The role of security in such locks and doors is significant. Georgiou says that the Combilok “offers a ‘safety net’ against poor communication… and helps guard against theft.”
Alan Ryder of Sara LBS says that security is often an important factor when considering an airlock system. These would generally be required by temperature controlled operations where exposure to the outside environment must be limited. But product integrity, bio-security and prevention of crime are also serious concerns that add weight to the business case for an airlock.
Ryder explains, “Put in its simplest form, an airlock loading bay has doors at both ends which work in tandem so that the interior of the production hall or warehouse is always protected from the outside environment. Airlocks are also very popular where the goods being handled are foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, dangerous chemicals or bio-hazards,” he says.
“They represent an extra layer of security deterrent, so can be installed at mints and vaults where high value items are handled. Additionally, the natural delay in entry means that CCTV cameras installed in airlocks are very effective in identifying intruders and non-authorised personnel,” says Ryder.
Hörmann was recently awarded Secured By Design accreditation for its industrial sectional doors, the SPU F42 and the SPU 67 Thermo that were deemed to be highly secure options for commercial buildings. The doors were tested to ensure optimum safety requirements were met, including issues surrounding current trends in crime.
Safety features are invaluable for protecting the products, staff, equipment and structure of any distribution centre. But the demands of today’s logistics operations mean that loading bays are being tweaked to do even more to boost efficiency. Whether it’s the method of use or the materials involved, loading operations are now being designed to actively add value to the process.
Georgiou says that the best tweak depends on the individual requirements of the operation. He gives the example, “refrigerated warehouses may require greater thermal efficiency, better seals, insulation below the leveller, opening vehicle doors after vehicle is sealed.”
He says “Loading bay design is based on a holistic approach of understanding vehicle types, MHE, building design etc. Once all this information is understood, the correct spec can be designed.”
But there is hope for existing facilities. Upgrades are possible, typically with items such as bumpers and shelters. Stertil also came up with the Retro Dock which does not require any ground to be broken. Instead it uses the external skeletal frame of the dock leveller it replaces so the new platform and cylinder can be simply installed within the empty space.
Tom Langley, projects director at Hörmann UK agrees that optimum design in the loading bay has an important effect of the wider logistics operation, and he says that attention to vehicle specification is key. “The design of a loading bay affects how fast items can be transferred in and out of the warehouse, therefore having a huge impact on the overall efficiency of workflow. For this reason, when designing loading bays it is important to consider the vehicles that will be using them as much as possible.”
As vehicle design has itself developed over the last few years the influence of e-commerce and convenience retailing has been clear. Storage density is paramount as demonstrated by the popularity of double deck trailers, and the new shape of warehousing with narrow aisles and ever higher racking.
Langley reveals “Hörmann UK were fortunate enough to supply the loading bay equipment on the latest Gazeley project, Altitude, which has 21 metre clear internal height from finished floor level for storage. This is the largest and tallest spec-built warehouse in the UK, and all bays were designed to accept double decks and standard height vehicles.”
As Langley explains, even in the most extraordinary design of industrial building the dimensions of the doors are dictated by the trailers. But that doesn’t mean that innovation stops at the double deck. There are more ways to arrange loading bays than simply in a line down the side of a warehouse.
“Subterranean loading bays have been in place for some time in busy cities such as London, but the exciting development for the future is multi-storey loading bays,” says Langley.
“Hörmann UK are working on the early stages of a large multi-level loading bay project at the moment, which is similar to a multi-storey car park but designed to allow 44 tonne HGV [access]. This is ideal in locations where land is limited, for example large cities in heavily populated areas of the world.
“The interesting part is how they will be used, and whether this is by one user or multiple users. I can imagine they will be popular with the bigger users or third party distribution companies looking after a different user on each level. Either way, this is definitely an industry changing idea,” says Langley.
Indeed the details of how multi-storey loading bays will be accessed is still to be decided. In Asia such facilities use spiral ramps, but this only works with smaller sized vehicles. Extended ramps and lifts are possible too, this is an innovation in progress. However, with the shortage of high quality warehouse space and the growing demand for retail fulfilment it certainly seems that multi-storey loading could be a reality soon.
So from retro-fitted safety features and high tech insulation, to an effective security system, there’s no doubt that innovations in loading technology can actively boost efficiency. And now there’s the exciting possibility that it may be on the cutting edge of a multi-storey revolution.
A-Safe is supplying bumpers made of a new material. Product manager Tom Emson says the firm’s impact protection barriers are made of a flexible “Memaplex” polymer. “On impact, iFlex barriers absorb kinetic energy, dissipating it through the barriers to minimise damage… before flexing back to their original shape,” says Emson.
He says that loading bay doors rarely have the strength to contain the forces of an impact with a vehicle. “Whereas traditional steel solutions lose any efficacy at lower weights; the flexibility of the A-Safe Memaplex polymer technology means that the extreme forces of impact by heavy vehicles can be mitigated in a solution that is still light enough to be operated by hand,” says Emson.
Hunt’s ramps up trailer utilisation
Independent frozen, chilled and ambient food supplier, Hunt’s Foodservice, has installed its fourth Thorworld Industries’ loading bay, gaining up to 49 per cent more usable space in its trailers.
South West based Hunt’s Foodservice is a family run operation providing 16,000 product lines to clients from mobile ice cream vendors and five-star hotels, to public sector services and outside catering firms.
Hunt’s took its original Thorworld ramp, with fixed loading platform and dock leveller in 2016 at the company’s Sherborne warehouse. In 2018 the firm installed a further two fixed ramps for its sites in Hazelbury Bryan and Stalbridge, each affording loading bay access from ground level. Subsequently it also took another ramp of the same design as the Sherborne apparatus for its Fareham site in Hampshire.
Thomas Hunt, operations director said: “A key reason for wanting a fixed loading platform and dock leveller, as opposed to a standard ramp, was so our forklift could safely enter and load lorry containers. This would enable pallets to be ‘double stacked’, rather than simply placed into lorries at a single level; better use space, improving efficiencies and reducing our firm’s carbon footprint.”
Previously loading bay operatives drove the forklift truck in the yard, and then manually placed pallets into the containers across one level.
“After installation, we were immediately able to use 89 per cent of our lorries’ internal space as opposed to 40 or 50 per cent. Fitting more products in one container has saved fuel and transport costs and reduced working hours for staff. Furthermore, we’re able to run just one forklift, which can operate in both the warehouse and inside the containers, as opposed to one vehicle in each,” said Hunt.
Hunt’s went on to order the two separate fixed Thorworld ramps for its Hazelbury Bryan and Stalbridge sites, and now reports the successful installation of a second fixed loading platform and dock leveller for its Fareham site; totalling four Thorworld installations in all.
Tesco takes on Transdek
With over 3,500 stores Tesco is the largest retailer in the UK. As part of its drive to increase transport efficiency and cut carbon emissions by 25 per cent by 2020, Tesco UK runs over 700 fixed double deck trailers in its distribution fleet. A network of double deck lifts was required to service the loading of these trailers, and the retail giant enlisted Transdek to help.
Transdek developed a range of double deck and vehicle to ground (V2G) lifts to offer optimal loading speed and safety for Tesco’s double deck trailer fleet. In total, it has installed almost 200 of these lifts for Tesco across its distribution hubs and larger retail stores.
Each site was surveyed and checked for double deck lift and trailer feasibility using a combination of Autoturn and 3D parametric design software. A range of site modifications such as dock and warehouse extensions and wheel ramps, were designed and built to enable compatibility at sites with low canopies, uneven yard surfaces, steep pits in front of the loading bay and/or limited storage area.
Schedules were limited to 1.5 days per site, with cranes allowed on site for three hours maximum. Transdek’s modular loadhouse design enables installation within these time constraints. LED rapid diagnostic displays were developed and integrated in to the lift control panels to minimise downtime.
Tesco was able to deliver double deck trailers to its top 200 stores throughout the UK, saving an estimated 25 million road miles each year. Every lift and site modification was installed within Tesco’s given time constraints, ensuring uninterrupted product flows to the shelf. The double deck and V2G lifts have maintained a 99 per cent running rate, optimising loading bay productivity and minimising downtime.
A loading bay earns it keep only when the door is open and in winter that can make for a cold working environment.
Sara LBS reckons the solution could be a door with high speed opening and closing drives.
A typical lightweight high speed door can open or close in about one second.
This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, December 2018