Your first Warehouse IIoT Analytics project ? Should be your Dock Operations

The data”Black hole” of your warehouse operations

Warehouses and DCs have tapped technology to closely monitor, analyze and adjust operations within the four walls of operatins for decades now. We have tradition warehouse management system (WMS) solutions to control inventory and order fulfillment workflows, as well as warehouse control software to orchestrate the running
of automation like conveyors and sorters.

These systems can give you visibility into when material flow gets disrupted, or inefficiencies begin to creep in with either labor or equipment. But if you evaluate these systems in the contect of different operations reas within the four walls of a warehouse, this leveraging of advanced technology tends to stop at the dock door.

Dock operations have increasingly become complex

Over the years, dock equipment has increasingly become more advanced through features like hydraulics, better controllers, and safety interlocking,. But when it comes to the capability to monitor activity and leverage analytics, docks have been skipped over in most warehouse operations. This creates a gap in terms of information access when it comes to the dock area of facilities.

It’s a gap that needs to be filled as soon as possible, to make sure the entire operation is as productive, as safe, and as cost efficient as possible. You could be the most efficient facility out there in terms of using software to run your operations like order picking or packaging inside of a facility, but once goods get to your loading dock, the leveraging of advanced software and technology tends to stop right there. And hence no wonder that a majority of high volume companies (like CPG) will find that a significant amount of inefficiencies originate in their dock operations.

With commoditization of technology and sensors, organizations now really need to move visibility of dock activity into the future by applying more connectivity and analytics over their dock assets

Data + Analytics = Visibility + Efficiency

As mentioned above, all the efficiencies that you generate in other processes in your warehouse can be killed by an inefficient docking operation. And if you currently do not leverage analytics in this area, chances are very very high that you DO have inefficiencies in that area.

Having data-driven insights into dock operations can help avoid bottlenecks as goods come into or leave distribution points and avoid wasted labor time. Even without doing any process analysis, some of the key questions that you continuously need answers for by leveraging data are:

• Are trucks present and waiting at a dock position, but there is no unloading or loading activity taking place?
• Are dock doors being left open unnecessarily?
• Are truck restraints being used?
• How often is each dock being used, and is there balanced utilization of a facility’s loading docks?
• Are any pieces of equipment past due on scheduled maintenance, or close to being due?

As mentioned above, good news is that technology is now available so it is time to make the best use of it.

Recent advances in sensors, Internet gateways, and Cloud infrastructure have made it possible to enable dock activity visibility and analytics under an Internet of Things (IoT) approach.

IoT-connected sensors and smart equipment controllers are able to convey real-time data on the operation of physical things (e.g. a forklift crossing a dock door entrance; a truck restraint engaging a trailer’s rear impact guard) to Cloud-based software where analytics and alerting take place.

The High level architecture of such a setup

With Cloud-based analytics and trending software products, IoT visibility over dock activity becomes something even small sites can use. Dock monitoring has been around, but it’s been something reserved for larger enterprises and big sites who can take on an expensive project .

The real opportunity is when dock visibility, analytics and alerting capability is opened up to facilities of all sizes, not just the big companies.

Sensors within equipment such as restraints detect whether equipment is engaged or in bypass, and other optional sensors such as a truck presence sensor (located just above a dock door position) or a forklift truck activity sensor (positioned by each dock door to detect the passing of forklifts) generate data on the coming and going of vehicles.

These sensors feed data to Controls, and from the control panels a data gateway transmits the sensor data to the Cloud. Multiple controllers can connect to one gateway to transmit data and the exact number would vary from one provider to another.

Once data is in the Cloud, a subscription-based software solution can present users with dashboards, analytics, and text or e-mail notification capabilities. The power of such a setup comes from accurate activity monitoring based on sensor data, and its easy-to-use reports and dashboards.

This solution offers analytics and trending based on actual dock activity as captured by sensors. When a user the cloud based analytics software is looking at a report on dock efficiency, that is based on actual activity. You can see all the trucks you’ve serviced for a given period time, and anytime there is an interval of no activity based on forklift sensor data, the software starts tracking that as inefficient time.

Examples of Analytics

So exactly what type of analytics will be useful for your docking operations ? To start with, the key aspect you need to remember is that the analytics may not need to start at a complex level. Examples ?

  • Even a line graph lets operations managers see the percentage of trucks
    that are being unloaded/loaded efficiently.
  • An activity “heat map” lets users see which days and hours of the day docks are at their busiest on average, which would be useful to a DC manager scheduling arrival times with carriers, or to a maintenance manager looking for the least disruptive time to perform work.

In developing such analytics platforms, close attention needs to be given to providing visual, easily consumed views of specific types of information. Examples ?

One analytics page allows users to quickly see the total amount of time any dock doors are unnecessarily left open. This type of report would be useful to a director of operations at a cold storage facility or company president concerned about issues like energy waste, or increased risk of theft.

Another report allows safety mangers or site operations directors to view the percentage of trucks safely restrained.

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