Mastering Logistics: Optimizing Cross-Docking Facilities With RTLS

Forbes logo with warehouse and workers. Product distribution center, Retail warehouse full of shelves with goods in cartons, with pallets and forklifts. Logistics and transportation concept.

We all know packages can easily be lost or misplaced in the transit journey. That is particularly true at freight forwarding facilities and cross-docking warehouses, which function as temporary holding facilities between different legs of transport. The transient nature of these facilities can create a logistical nightmare. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the process, cross-docking is a practice in logistics management that involves unloading incoming deliveries and loading the materials for outbound delivery. At these kinds of facilities, packages go in and out the door within a matter of hours. There are typically no storage racks nor any long-term storage infrastructure. The underlying idea is to efficiently sort and dispatch packages to provide faster delivery of goods from supplier to end customer. 

But the immensely spacious open floor plan, combined with an increasing amount of goods handled daily, can lead to more than a few degrees of chaos.

So how can goods most efficiently be transported from inbound to outbound delivery systems? More and more facilities are looking at real-time location systems (RTLS) to track operational flows inside the facility. A combination of RTLS and video monitoring can also provide a more complete picture of the facility and its fast-paced operations, reducing liabilities and process errors. 

The Missing Link

At these sorts of temporary holding facilities, you don’t have time to misplace a package: it has to be accounted for and its location known at all times. The sheer volume of goods, the speed of sorting, and the fact that all items are in motion within the facility cause major operational challenges. That requires a high level of workforce coordination to address and overcome. 

Because cross-docking warehouses typically do not contain designated storage areas for specific goods, packages are often transported directly to the outbound docks, where a truck or van is waiting for loading and can quickly take off for delivery. The goods are moved from inbound to outbound docks via transportation units, which can be everything from roller cages to pallets.

The process generally works like this: packages are unloaded off delivery trucks, brought to a sorting machine, sent down a chute, and divided into transportation units. Some cross-docking facilities utilize a distribution conveyor with chutes assigned to end destinations, but others may use forklifts to transport pallets of goods directly from inbound to outbound.

Without the ability to efficiently coordinate the workforce and available equipment (forklifts, pallet jacks, roller cages, etc.), the loading/unloading process can be delayed, which would then cause issues down the line. Cross-docking facilities move everything in bulk at lightning speed, and a single mistake or bottleneck is enough to ground operations to a halt. One stalled outbound delivery, and packages started to pile up. 

So in essence, a dedicated cross-docking facility must be designed to move inbound pallets from the receiving dock to outbound trucks without hiccups in between, monitoring every step of the sorting process. But that can’t be achieved without some sort of internal tracking mechanism. You need maximum optimization. 

Selecting and implementing RTLS 

There are numerous wireless RTLS systems available based on a variety of technologies, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). Any of these systems enable operators to monitor the movement of goods to varying degrees from the moment they arrive to when they are loaded onto outbound delivery vehicles. But how can the benefits of RTLS be realized in a facility where speed is crucial and adding time-consuming extra steps to the process is simply not feasible?

The venue, use cases and type of tracked items are leading factors that should shape your system selection. To choose an RTLS system right for you, assess your facility’s existing infrastructure, including the possibility to deploy new infrastructure power sources availability, and data network capabilities. Ensure that the specific site constraints can support the chosen RTLS technology. Typically the facility manager, with the help of technology vendors, should also conduct a thorough site survey to identify the characteristics that will impact realizing the target use cases; e.g. optimal locations for RTLS hardware components, optimal specs for the tags, type of mobile handset, , and what exactly should be supported for a successful system deployment and configuration. These steps help ensure proper coverage and accuracy, as well as optimize the overall solution price. 

Remember all systems have their pros and cons. You thereby need to identify specific goals and objectives when selecting an RTLS system for a cross-docking facility. Determine which areas need to be covered and what use cases you need to solve, such as monitoring inventory, tracking assets in the shopfloor, or optimizing yard management. Your answers will guide you through the selection and implementation processes. For instance, in congested and fast-paced cross-docking facilities, you’ll want a system capable of tracking a high volume of assets quickly and with high reliability. 

It’s worth noting RFID systems have limited range and accuracy outdoors due to interference from metal, water, or dense foliage. So this system wouldn’t be suitable for monitoring goods when they’re being offloaded from inbound trucks. Instead, consider opting for a hybrid system that can work from outdoors to indoors for seamless tracking. 

Alternatively, tagless RTLS is a less resource-intensive option where goods can be tracked via a barcode scanner or QR code rather than a physical tag. A handset scans the code of the goods to record the location at the time of the reading. This allows goods to be traced throughout the facility with less physical hardware, which can quickly add up in price while still providing valuable location information. 

Ultimately, when it comes to logistics, the more visibility you have, the better. And the less time you have to spend gathering that information and searching for resources, the better. Gone are the days of employees frantically running blind across ten thousand square foot facilities. We’re now looking for ways to develop a well-oiled logistics machine, and that can’t be done without real-time location systems.

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    Fabio Belloni

    Fabio Belloni

    Fabio Belloni is the Co-founder & Chief Customer Officer at Quuppa. He is also a member of Forbes Technology Council – A Community for World-Class CIOs, CTOs, and Technology Executives. (Read more here)