You’ve seen their vehicles. You’ve seen their planes. And more than likely you’ve utilized their package delivery service, or at least been the recipient of a package delivered by the guys dressed in brown. Have you ever wondered how that package you received made it from where it was shipped to your doorstep? Maybe it’s the analytical and logistical part of me, but I surely have wondered. So, when the opportunity arose to be part of a tour we seized the opportunity. AirlineGuy Darin, and our friend Deon, made our way to Louisville recently to take in the technological wonder that is the UPS Worldport: the largest automated package handling facility in the world.
After touring the SDF Control Tower (thanks to our friend and colleague Tom Rainey) we made our way across the street to the UPS Flight Training Center where we were graciously met by UPS employee Jay R. Lillie. Not only did Jay R get us signed in and settled, it turned out he would also be our tour guide. Before the presentation began we also met UPS’s Dorsey Demaster, Air Traffic Manager; and Jim Mayer, Public Relations Manager.
After a brief video presentation, the floor was opened to Q&A. The first question came from me: “Where and how did UPS get its start?” Jay R asked the room if anyone knew the answer and surprisingly, none of the invited guests knew. Jay R informed us that UPS began in Seattle in 1907 primarily as a bike messenger and delivery company (American Messenger Company). After a few more questions we boarded a small bus, taken a short distance to a security checkpoint where everyone was scanned, re-boarded the bus, and driven across the tarmac.
We saw up close and personal many of the aircraft types in the UPS Airlines fleet. B747-400s, A300, B757s, B767s lined the tarmac. On our drive we also noticed three brand new 747-8Fs and multiple MD-11s were remote parked for loading and unloading.UPS Airlines consists of 240 aircraft that serve over 200 countries and territories worldwide. The number of aircraft will reach 241 by end of March as more 747-8Fs come on line
As we continued our drive, the ramp areas were fairly quiet. I had expected a more frenetic pace. The workload at The Worldport is divided into two shifts: “2nd Day”, and “Next Day.” 2nd Day shift includes the morning/day shift. During this timeframe approx 3500 employees are on the property. During the busiest shift, Next Day, the employee count almost doubles to 6500 employees. It is during the Next Day shift that this place really comes to life. Have heard operations during this shift are something to behold.
The bus was parked and we made our way to a second floor observation area. There, we watched a B757 be readied for dispatch. Because it was cold that morning, the deicing operations were also in effect. The observation area gave us a bird’s eye view of a small area of The Worldport. This B757 occupied 1 of 125 ramp parking positions.
To escape the cold we ducked into “The Core.” Here we observed small packages and documents of various sizes making their way through the sorting system. The end of the line for the packages and documents were piers where employees were right siding the packages so that the lasers could properly scan the bar code. Each worker was position at an ergonomically designed station as endless packages and documents made their way to trays. The trays were designed to “tip” and deposit the packages and documents into a durable shipping bag once it reached its intended position inside The Core. This area consists of 19 tilt tray sorter “loops” totaling 2.6 miles and over 17,000 tilt trays.
The Matrix. The first sign that we had entered The Matrix was literally a sign.
The “Primary Matrix” is a 4-level structure which houses the main sorting machinery. Four levels of conveyer belts, lasers, and cameras. And of course, packages! The Matrix is highly automated and we were informed that humans rarely go in to it besides maintenance or an occasional alert. Otherwise it functions on its own. Looking down into the Matrix was slightly vertigo-inducing. There are over 33,000 conveyer belts totaling an impressive 155 miles. That’s more than enough belts to stretch from Louisville to Indianapolis.
Upon leaving The Matrix we made our way to a museum of sorts. Here we were given more history of UPS and how the company has evolved since its days as a bike messenger and delivery service. On the technology front we saw the evolution of the handheld devices (DIAD, or Delivery Information Acquisition Device) utilized by UPS personnel when delivering packages and how they use this technology to track shipments. The evolution went from clipboards in the early days, to modem activated devices, to small handhelds that do many things including taking pictures of packages on doorsteps to notify customer that the package has arrived. With the modem DIADs, UPS personnel would be required on occasion to go to a payphone, dial a specific number, place the phone receiver on the DIAD to upload and download information.
We also saw how ULDs (unit load devices – containers) are loaded (heavier anchoring packages and boxes in the corners, build upwards to prevent shift). Our tour guide, Jay R, explained it like as if you were playing Tetris. He also demonstrated new material being used in the redesign of the ULDs. Fire resistant materials that’s stronger and lighter than used in current ULDs. The more than 17,000 ULDs used by UPS will have this new material by years end.
While in this area we also got a glimpse of how irregular sized packages are sorted and prepared for shipment. We saw tires, 5-gallon buckets, and a host of many other wrapped, non-standard sized items making their way through the system. These items sat on large trays, which looked to be about 5′ x 3′ and were secured with straps. I was reminded of scene in Star Wars: Attack of The Clones when C-3P0 entered the factory where machines were making machines and said: “Shut me down. Machines making machines. How perverse.” Darin and Deon were reminded of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
We ended our tour back at the UPS Flight Training Center thoroughly pleased with what we had seen. Darin remarked, “An impressive system that combines technology, experience and vision that leads to exceptional service both internally and externally.” In other words he enjoyed it immensely.
Thank you Jay R, Dorsey and Jim for a wonderful experience. Our expectations where thoroughly exceeded. If the opportunity arises to see the operation during Next Day shift (the night sort), you know how to reach us!