So much of our daily routine is controlled by automated technology that we don't even think about it. Our alarm clocks wake us up; our pre-set coffee makers kick into action; our automatic door locks make getting into the car easier than ever; and, thanks to our automatic transmissions, we don't even have to shift while driving. And all of that is before we even get to work!

But these kinds of automation technologies aren't just revolutionizing the consumer world; even industrial facilities are experiencing it. Facilities are becoming increasingly automated, with advanced robotics, AS/RS systems, AGVs and warehouse management systems. Yet, despite these 21st-century innovations, many loading dock operations still rely on manual labor and outdated, 20th-century technologies. But even that is changing, as products like interlocked, integrated loading dock control systems are becoming more widespread.

Automating the Loading Dock

At many facilities, the various pieces of loading dock equipment – including vehicle restraints, levelers and overhead doors – are operated independently of each other. Once upon a time, these operations were all manual operations, such as the setting of wheel chocks on a trailer's rear tires once it is positioned at the dock. These operations not were only time-intensive (requiring employees to go outside and set the equipment), they potentially were dangerous, with a host of potential accidents caused by human error.

Today's leading loading dock control systems do away with this danger by automating the loading and unloading process with just the touch of a button – starting with the vehicle restraint. Restraints that require minimal human interaction to automatically secure a trailer or vehicle that backs up to the dock increase efficiency and safety by eliminating the need for dock employees to go outside and physically secure the trailer. They also eliminate the opportunity for mistakes by the driver, ensuring the trailer can't mistakenly pull away when a forklift is still inside.

Automatic restraints can work by locking onto the trailer's wheels or – more commonly – its rear impact guard (RIG). RIG-based automatic vehicle restraints offer a RIG/restraint vertical engagement range of 9 to 30 inches. Some models even can help secure intermodal overseas container chassis, which are increasingly common across the supply chain.

Additionally, some automatic restraints can be integrated into building management or security systems, providing another level of security and protection against external tampering.

Advanced Safety Systems

Engagement of the restraint triggers a dock safety communications system. The traditional signaling system is a familiar fixture at plants and warehouses, with green and red lights indicating the status of the vehicle restraint. Inside, a green light tells the forklift operator the trailer is secured and safe to enter. Outside, the light turns to red, letting the truck driver know that it is not safe to pull away from the dock, as the trailer might still be getting serviced. The lights are reversed when the restraint gets unlocked, telling the truck driver he safely can depart.

The most advanced light communications systems offer well-placed, at-a-glance lights that are easy for lift truck drivers to see. Due to obstructions in their view of the control box, forklift operators easily can overlook the vehicle restraint status when they are entering or exiting the trailer. For example, stacks of pallets in the staging area can block the view of status warning lights on an eye-level control box. Control box status lights also might get visually lost among several other control boxes or signs on the dock wall. And, of course, control boxes can't be seen from inside the trailer.

In each case, the forklift driver unknowingly becomes at risk if the restraint becomes inadvertently unlocked. Advanced light communications systems provide visual cues for the forklift driver on a sight-line above the control box and at the corners of the door opening, as well as on the dock leveler, providing visual verification from inside the trailer.

The newest dock controls go well beyond light communications. They now can be programmed to operate only in a safe sequence of operation, with individual elements of the system interlocked. For instance, the most advanced dock control systems can be programmed with a green light interlock, which disables the use of the hydraulic leveler or overhead door until the vehicle restraint is safely engaged; an overhead door interlock, which requires overhead doors to be opened prior to leveler operation; or a stored leveler interlock, which ensures that the leveler safely is stored before the restraint can release the trailer. If an inexperienced worker presses the control box button for an individual system element in the wrong sequence, it won't work – ensuring that no safety procedures will be skipped.

Barriers positioned near the edge of the dock door to prevent falls out of the dock opening also can be integrated into this safe sequence of operation. Once the trailer securely is in place, the lock button is pressed, the light on the control box turns green and the barrier releases for easy access to the trailer. The most advanced barriers – made from PVC-coated fiberglass mesh and heavy-duty polyester – can stretch across openings 16-feet-5-inches wide and are able to stop up to 30,000 lbs. with minimal damage to the barrier.

Like smartphones, these advanced control systems use a touchscreen interface. However, they also are built to withstand the harsh conditions on a loading dock; meet requirements for electrical noise; electrical and environmental conditions; and chemicals. In addition, they have flexible circuitry and can be modified to update components or add features well after original installation.