All loading docks are not created equal

Made in Milwaukee

A vehicle restraint with a vertical barrier.

Nova Technology International LLC
N90 W14507 Commerce Drive, Menomonee Falls
Industry: Loading dock equipment
Employees: 60 (including parent company Multi-Fab)
www.novalocks.com

From a distance, the loading docks on the thousands of industrial buildings throughout southeastern Wisconsin all look the same: an overhead door, some padding around the edges, maybe something to level off the step between the warehouse and the truck.

The reality is each dock comes with its own unique characteristics created by the size and height of the door, the type of trucks that will use it and even the angle of the driveway.

“There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all; just doesn’t happen,” said Bob Hensel, president of Menomonee Falls-based Nova Technology International LLC.

Nova is a manufacturer of loading dock equipment, including vehicle restraints, dock seals and shelters. It also supplies dock levelers. The company was acquired in 2002 by Multi-Fab Products LLC, which supplies a wide range of aftermarket parts for the industry. Hensel oversees both businesses, which are run from Menomonee Falls.

Seals and shelters are mounted around the loading dock door to help maintain the temperature inside the building and save energy. They also provide safety and security functions. A seal is made of foam covered with fabric, while a shelter has a rigid frame and curtains to make a seal.

Vehicle restraints, meanwhile, are either mounted to the wall below the dock or in the driveway in front of the dock. They traditionally use a hook to hold a truck in place and prevent a driver from leaving before a load is ready. Nova recently introduced a restraint with a vertical barrier instead of a hook and a patented mechanism for keeping the barrier in place.

The loading dock equipment industry has a strong concentration in the Milwaukee area. In addition to Nova and Multi-Fab, the region is home to Rite-Hite and Systems Inc. Kelley, one of the original companies and a national player, has its roots here, although it is now based in Texas.

The industry is driven by new commercial building construction, Hensel said, and it has been growing since the depths of the Great Recession. Nova focuses its work less on the large new buildings and more on helping small- and medium-sized companies through a network of dealers.

“Our business focuses on the smaller warehouses and a lot on replacement business,” Hensel said.

With seals and shelters constructed from foam, fabric and wood and vehicle restrains from metal and mechanical pieces, Nova has to divide some of its resources among two very different processes.

As a smaller company, being responsive to customer needs and providing customization is an important differentiator, but it also presents challenges for keeping lead times short.

“Even the standard parts are not as standard as you would think,” Hensel said.

Nova has taken steps to improve ergonomics throughout its facility to help ease production. These include individually customized workstations, an air table for sewing and purchasing balanced tools.

Still, like many manufacturers, finding the right workforce can remain a challenge, especially when the headcount has increased by 50 percent over the past three years.

Hensel said finding welders presents some difficulty, but finding industrial sewers also is a challenge.

“The businesses that have been in this state that traditionally did sewing, a lot of that has moved out of the state, out of the country, so finding people that have sewing skills … it’s getting tougher and tougher,” he said.

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.