October 2002 | Commentary | Viewpoint

You Have Entered the Material Transfer Zone

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The loading dock has become a critical component of virtually any supply chain strategy. Mistakes in dock design and equipment choices can have costly consequences that ripple throughout the supply chain.

For instance, slowdowns and product damage can very quickly multiply when overhead door openings are too small and dock levelers too narrow to provide forklifts full access to modern, extra-wide trailers that are fully loaded from side to side and top to bottom. A host of safety consequences can also result. But this is not new.

The push for productivity mounted in the 1970s as global competition took hold. Success soon followed when businesses got serious about production, inventories, procurement, staffing, and other internal functions. Companies even negotiated terms for supplies, trimmed staffing, automated processes, installed just-in-time production, outsourced non-core functions, cut energy usage, and recycled and reclaimed waste.

Today, productivity is a given. Few, if any, unproductive companies survive, which explains why companies must look outside their walls and focus on supply chain logistics to gain a competitive edge.

Pathways to Improvement

The bad news is that supply chains are inherently inefficient. That's because they involve processes such as trucking and inventories, which are historically difficult to manage. The good news is that opportunities for improvement abound.

An area where a tremendous amount of efficiency can be realized is at the loading dock. But, let's be clear: it's not going to happen overnight because it's likely to involve a shift in organizational mindset. Additionally, a host of trends and issues heavily influence loading dock decisions.

Where Critical Exchanges Happen

An important first step is to dispel the notion of the loading dock as a doorway for shipping or receiving. It's not. Instead, think of it as a key component of an area known as the Material Transfer Zone (MTZ). In simple terms, the MTZ is where critical exchanges of raw materials and finished goods take place. Technically, it reaches from a company's drive approach well into the shipping/receiving/staging area.

It's also important to get up to speed on the broad range of issues that impact the Material Transfer Zone. Business logistics managers will do well to understand—or at least thoroughly examine—the issues associated with dock positioning and design, trailer design, load configuration, dock equipment systems, the interaction between material handling vehicles and loads, and the relationship among all of these factors, including safety initiatives. It's equally critical to consider how these same decisions can significantly reduce the potential for product damage within the MTZ.

Material Transfer Zone productivity stems largely from intelligent facility design and proper loading dock equipment selection. Businesses should factor in the MTZ when making decisions about building layout, transportation, storage, material flow schemes, and trailer, pallet, or load configurations.

Logistics managers must also consider the time it takes to load and unload trailers at the dock. It's an area that many companies have historically overlooked—but no longer. Successful companies today recognize load/unload time as a key measurement of productivity. This is especially true with retail and food/grocery chains. The bottom line is that better load/unload times translate into better overall productivity at virtually any facility.

It's also advantageous to look beyond how trailers are serviced and loads are handled today and carefully consider how things may change in the near future.

Turning to the Experts

Loading dock experts are exposed to the real-world challenges of ensuring smooth, efficient, safe operations in the Material Transfer Zone. If anyone can provide information that will lead to appropriate dock design recommendations, loading dock experts can.

Do not underestimate the tremendous impact that proper dock design and equipment selection has on the entire supply chain. Instead, make the Material Transfer Zone a key part of your supply chain strategy.

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