Warehouses that want to improve labor and space utilization without expanding to a new location or breaking ground may consider cross-docking because of its potential efficiencies. Unfortunately, it can also come with many pitfalls for those trying it for the first time.
Cross-docking requires a detailed understanding of your team, space, partners, and technology. For new warehouses, that means implementing cross-docking should come with significant testing and preparation, especially in terms of your inventory management, scheduling, spatial allocation, and the training you give your team and partners.
Test inventory management tools
Cross-docking prepares companies for just-in-time (JIT) shipping and distribution, making immediate use of inventory as it arrives. Companies that want to start utilizing cross-docking will need a robust inventory management system that can understand and differentiate these inbound shipments.
Your tools must be able to understand inventory utilization. If half of the goods on an inbound shipment are for JIT purposes, then the inventory platform must be able to split received goods and correctly update both inventory levels and the number of products you list for sale. If this action would require ongoing intervention from you or additional inventory counts, it could introduce higher labor costs that negate cross-dock benefits.
Ultimately, cross-docking can help with inventory management and often keep companies from needing to expand physical infrastructure for the products they hold. It might also help you expand operations to support backorders. This takes time, however, and requires tools that help you understand and manage inventory levels without adding burden.
Robust scheduling includes flexibility
Cross-docking is intense choreography. You’re going to need smart people and reliable technology to manage the planning of how people and trucks are moving in and around your site. Cross-docking and JIT operations demand having the people available to handle inbound shipments and process them while helping your team know what inventory is ready to use and what needs to be put away.
Dock availability and the time of truck arrivals and departures must be flexible so that your operations can run normally. Every cross-docking team plans on a smooth day where everything runs on schedule. However, that’s rarely a reality. Paperwork, traffic delays, accidents, or even someone needing to use the bathroom can cause a small delay. Something as simple as an employee driving through the parking lot can force a truck to wait.
If you schedule everything down to the minute and don’t give your team and partners flexibility, it’ll cause greater delays. In most cases, as you’re expanding and learning, arriving trucks will end up waiting because it’s hard to predict the time people need, but you also don’t want docks sitting empty for extended periods. So, ensure that you have people ready when trucks are there and test the time you give teams for inbound and outbound.
Dock door assignments should consider space and traffic
One other caveat that many warehouses don’t consider when they first start cross-docking is the physical space that people, trucks, and inventory required. Cross-docking effectively requires that dock door assignments be efficient and allow incoming and departing trucks enough space to maneuver safely and quickly. Adding extra points to a turn will slow the entire process down, for example.
If your warehouse wasn’t built with cross-docking in mind, test this thoroughly. Often, warehouses need significant reconfiguration of internal elements or will install new doors and adjust the building design to facilitate cross-docking. Multiple teams, doors, trucks, and the equipment everyone is using are going to take up extra space and need to be able to move freely and safely. Start by giving everything and everyone more leeway than you think they need.
Some new inventory and dock management platforms support cross-docking and can make suggestions based on timing, assignments, and other aspects of your operations based on historical and current data. When your tools offer this, try out their analysis and recommendations to see if you can maximize your efforts.
The entire supply chain requires competencies
Cross-docking is an advanced management and utilization technique for any warehouse or distribution center. You’re managing dock door assignments, transshipment, vehicle routing, product allocation, barcode scanning and putaway, new warehouse layouts, and the network and systems required to manage it all.
Your team needs competency in each of those areas and activities. Partners should have their own understanding plus the ability to support you. Inbound expertise is required, across the board, for JIT requirements and scheduling to be effective.
You’ll eventually want to build out appropriate penalties for time windows to keep things running smoothly, but that requires your team not to cause delays. In many instances, cross-docking is complicated mathematics disguised as people and trucks.
Take your time to test and implement it. Work with partners proactively to help understand what they need from you and explain what you need from them. Train your team specifically on the new processes and requirements. Simulate, test, and optimize procedures and layout continually.
Cross-docking can save warehouses significantly on a variety of costs and size requirements. You might reduce material handling and make labor more efficient. Customer satisfaction can be improved, too, as you’re relying less on backorders or older products. Achieving all of those wins is a lengthy process, and it’s important to walk into the situation with patience.
Jake Rheude is the Director of Marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, an ecommerce fulfillment warehouse that was born out of ecommerce. He has years of experience in ecommerce and business development. In his free time, Jake enjoys reading about business and sharing his own experience with others.