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Container Loading Dock Types & Alternatives

Bison Group

26 Aug 7 Minutes


Looking to streamline your shipping operations? You may be interested in building loading bays at your facility to handle shipping containers/or loading goods straight into trucks. There are many things to consider when investing in new commercial facilities or adding a loading dock, such as the type to install, what accessories to include, and if the cost is worth it for your business.

There are 4 main types of loading docks:

  • Flush Dock

  • Enclosed Dock

  • Sawtooth Dock

  • Open Dock

Flush Dock

Flush loading docks are built into the building so that a truck can back up directly to an opening in the wall to load and unload containers. This is a very common type of dock, and it's a favorite for transport and warehouse operations. Since the truck backs directly up to the wall, flush docks will often have dock bumpers or other accessories to protect the building from damage.

Flush loading dock

Enclosed Dock

Enclosed docks are loading areas that are housed inside of a building. Trucks drive inside the facility and load containers in a closed space. This is common for products that need climate control (like fruit), or to protect cargo from contamination (such as a product that's made in a clean room). If you choose an enclosed dock, you'll need to install a ventilation system to protect personnel from exhaust fumes emitted from the vehicles. You'll also want to install bumpers inside your facility to protect the walls from damage.

Enclosed loading dock

Sawtooth Dock (or Saw Tooth Dock)

Sawtooth docks are often built for larger operations that have multiple trucks coming in regularly. This type of dock is constructed in a zig-zag pattern to help more trucks fit into a smaller space. It also makes moving trucks into the area easier, though you'll need to construct special lanes to avoid collisions. Sawtooth docks require more space than other types of docks, so they're better for large facilities with a lot of cargo to move in and out each day.

Saw tooth loading dock

Open Dock

Open docks are stand-alone outdoor structures that are usually attached to a building. Since containers need to be loaded outdoors, there's a risk of containers and cargo getting wet or damaged in bad weather. There's also a risk of theft while the containers are outdoors. Because of the risks, this type of dock is less common than other types.

Often, open docks are covered with a canopy or roof to help protect the cargo from the elements throughout the container loading and unloading process.

Open loading dock

Loading Dock Equipment & Dock Accessories

Simply building a shipping dock and using it as-is is not enough. You'll need to add on several accessories to keep workers safe, reduce damage to buildings and equipment, and smoothly move containers in and out of the facility.

Loading dock accessories

Depending on the shipping dock design you choose, you'll need to purchase a variety of loading dock accessories, including:

  • Dock Bumpers - These fit onto the side of docks and prevent damage from trucks running into solid structures.

  • Dock Levelers - These form a slope between the dock and the trailer bed, to help level out different heights.

  • Dock Seals - These adhere to the openings of a loading bay and block air and dust from getting through.

  • Dock Curtains - Plastic curtains cover the dock and block air, dust, and noise.

  • Dock Gates - Safety gates can be installed over the openings of a loading dock, preventing people from accidentally falling through them.

  • Dock Lights - Help to illuminate the area when loading and unloading cargo at night.

  • Dock Boards - These lay flat over the gap between the truck bed and the loading ramp to allow forklifts to travel smoothly and prevent falls.

  • Strip Doors - These plastic strips cover the opening and keep outside air and contamination from getting inside the facility.

  • Dock Barricades - These block off docks when they're not in use.

  • Guard Rails - These keep your building and personnel safe by creating clear boundaries around dangerous equipment and areas.

  • Corner and Wall Protectors - These cover wall corners and building edges to prevent them from damage.

Loading dock accessories are crucial for ensuring the safety of your staff and equipment during loading and unloading. You'll need to factor in the cost of these extras if you're planning to build a loading dock.

Loading and Unloading Shipping Containers Without a Loading Dock

Loading docks are helpful for businesses with a large volume of containers going in and out each day. But if you don't have a loading bay or if it's too expensive to build one, here are some other great options to consider:

Putting A Shipping Container On The Ground With Container Jacks

A Bison Container Jack allows you to safely and securely lift containers without needing a loading dock. The four lifting legs are secured to the container that lowers it to the ground without any extra equipment .The F-series jacks can support up to 70,000 pounds (32,000kg)

Bison's F Series container jacks are bolted into the ground, giving you a permanent location to load containers onto trucks on your property. Containers can be grounded, devanned or loaded, and then lifted back onto the truck chassis with minimal effort. See this case study of a global fruit exporter using two F Series to load 30 containers per day for an example of the F Series.

If you've been hiring third-party services to help you lift and move containers, having a set of container jacks can give you independence. You'll be able to pack and load your own cargo without having to wait or pay for third parties.

Container jacks also can save you money by:

  • Removing the need to buy and maintain heavy equipment like forklifts or side loaders

  • Removing third-party costs like crane charges

  • Increasing the efficiency of your operations—a single person can do a full container transfer with F series jacks in 8 minutes or less.

And if you don't want to permanently fix a set of container jacks into the ground, you can also purchase portable jacks that can be stored and used in various locations on your premises or even moved over a larger distance.

Putting A Shipping Container On The Ground With Heavy Equipment

Another alternative to building a loading dock is to purchase or rent heavy equipment to move and load containers.

Here are some examples of heavy equipment that can lift and move containers:

  • Boom crane

  • Gantry cranes

  • Straddle carriers

  • Reach stackers

  • Top loaders

  • Heavy container forklifts

  • Sideloaders

  • Truck cranes

Heavy equipment can be fast and efficient if you have a lot of containers to move. However, they can be expensive. Remember to add maintenance costs in your container handling equipment investment analysis. Many Bison customers are pleased with low initial investment, low maintenance cost, and most of all operational independence of our Bison container lifting jacks.

Click here to read more about each type of heavy equipment and discover which type is right for you.

Container handling equipment

Portable Loading Dock To Drive A Forklift Up To The Container On The Truck

Instead of constructing a shipping dock on your property, you can purchase a pre-built portable loading dock for the same purpose. Portable loading ramps allow a forklift to drive up to the truck to load and unload containers without any other heavy equipment or permanent structures. Not only will this give you the functionality of a loading bay, but you can also move it around. Such ramps take up a lot of space so it will not be an efficient solution for every facility. Not all cargo can be safely loaded into a container that way. If you are loading light and palletized cargo this might be all you need.

Portable loading dock

Other Ground-To-Container Methods (Loading Dock Lifts Or Forklifts)

Loading dock lifts can be used to lift a person or forklift into the container to load pallets directly into it. This allows you to load materials into the container, though it won't help you to lift the container itself, for which you'll need container jacks or heavy equipment. Repetitive lifting and lowering a forklift will take some time.

There are also various telescopic belt conveyor systems for loading individual boxes and or bags with dry bulk. These are a very labor-intensive method. Alternatively, you can use a forklift to lift pallets to the container, load them in, and then repeat until the container is filled. This is a popular low-cost alternative to shipping docks and lifts but it may take you more time than other methods.

If you're considering building a loading dock, you'll want to choose the right fit for your business. If you're not ready to invest in building a dock onto your facility and fitting it with all of the required loading dock equipment, there are several alternatives available.

Container loading with forklift

Conclusion: Loading Dock Options & Loading Dock Alternatives

Instead of a shipping dock, consider using Bison Container Jacks - low-cost & reliable equipment - to help you put a container on the ground and easily load it on a flat surface with a small forklift and a simple container ramp to drive in. For medium-sized operations, we recommend investing in a Bison F Series grounded loading dock. See the complete list of Bison F Series specs and features. For smaller shipping container operations look at manual container jacks or other portable container lifting jacks.