IT drives the UPS machine

Automation at the Worldport hub speeds up package sorting, cuts manual labor and helps UPS compete

Every night, United Parcel Service Inc. processes an average of 600,000 packages through its massive Worldport hub in Louisville, Ky. One hundred aircraft fly in and out of the 4 million-square-foot facility. It's a feat of industrial choreography that the company couldn't accomplish without advanced IT systems, says Jovita Carranza, vice president of air operations.

Carranza, who started her career with UPS in Los Angeles loading trucks, says it would be cost-prohibitive to handle that package volume manually. Plus, the Atlanta-based company has to process all of the packages slated for overnight delivery between 11:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.—a goal it couldn't meet if it had to sort them all manually, she says.

Moreover, automation has helped UPS increase employee retention by reducing the manual workload, says Al Rapp, vice president of human resources at the UPS Airlines unit.

That's important for UPS, Rapp says, because worker turnover threatened to tap out the labor pool in Louisville. Brian Clancy, a consultant at transportation and logistics consulting firm MergeGlobal Inc. in Arlington, Va., agrees. He says that by cutting the amount of manual labor involved, UPS can better attract and retain the 5,000 workers needed to staff Worldport.

Worldport's IT and automation systems run on a mind-boggling array of hardware, including almost 14,000 computer devices. These systems, which include 30TB of online storage, are networked via 5,500 miles of fiber-optic cable and control 122 miles of conveyor belts that move the packages, according to Ted Gallagher, Worldport's systems manager.

Managing 'The Machine'

UPS invested $100 million in software development for the Worldport applications, says Gallagher, who refers to the combination of hardware and software as "The Machine."

Though UPS used some outside consultants, CIO and Senior Vice President Ken Lacy says the company had no choice but to develop the infrastructure in-house, "since it was not available off the shelf." Besides, in-house development has made it easier to maintain and troubleshoot the systems, he says.

Gallagher says Worldport runs on 10 major applications tied together by company-developed middleware called the Common Message Environment. This software uses a proprietary messaging protocol, allowing for easy transfer of information among disparate applications, including mainframe-based legacy systems and newer e-business applications.

While The Machine manages Worldport, UPS maintains an IT staff of more than 100 people to manage it. That management starts at the most basic level on a daily basis, with what Greg Echsner, manager of the Worldport technical support group (TSG), calls a "pretrip" inspection of critical systems throughout the facility.

About two hours before the sorting process begins, John Music and five other technicians from the Worldport service desk walk through sections of the building, checking key components such as the computerized scales that weigh igloo-shaped containers filled with packages to be loaded on aircraft.

Those massive scales, located at each of the hub's 44 aircraft loading doors, are networked to a system developed by UPS called the Distributed Weight and Balance System, which ensures that containers are loaded onto aircraft in an order that promotes load stability.

The service technicians also pay particular attention to the status of the scan guns that read the all-important bar codes, testing one out of every five, Echsner explains.

The scan guns account for the majority of hardware problems the TSG handles because the devices are often dropped on the floor.

As the TSG teams finish their work, hub controllers such as Terry Rigdon get settled at their desks in the operations control center high above the Worldport floor. In front of Rigdon are three computer screens that serve as windows into what Gallagher calls the brain of The Machine: the Human-Machine Interface system.

This system allows Rigdon to observe and manage the flow of packages throughout the building. Rigdon can monitor key applications such as the control of the programmable logic controllers (PLC), which direct compressed-air pucks, or bumpers, to push packages from belt to belt or to chutes and deliver the packages to workers for loading into outbound containers.

The PLCs determine where to route the packages based on bar-code labels, which are read either by scanners or high-resolution cameras, Gallagher says. Donna Barrett, a UPS spokeswoman, says 93% of the packages handled by Worldport use these labels, which in UPS lingo provide package-level detail (PLD).

Customer Cooperation

Getting that detailed information requires customer cooperation, which Barrett says the company achieves by explaining the benefits to large shippers and, in some cases, providing them with label printers. Small shippers, including individuals, can create their own labels on the UPS Web site and print them on laser or ink-jet printers.

Project leader Mark Dilk says that when customers create a PLD label, they also automatically feed data about their packages to Worldport over the UPS global network. This helps Worldport staffers build a twice-daily "sort plan," which reconfigures the mammoth facility and its 17,000 conveyors to match the expected package flow, Gallagher says. The sort plan is the key to management of the company's next-day air shipments, he says.

Worldport has to handle package flows that change daily, plus seasonal variations such as huge volume increases at Christmas. To do that, Gallagher says, loading and unloading positions at Worldport and the miles of conveyor belts in between must be reconfigured through the sort plan, which is managed by an application called the Flexible Lineup Editor (Flex).

The 'Secret Sauce'

Flex is the "hidden secret sauce" of Worldport, Gallagher says, because it manages the building configuration "so all the dependent applications know where the packages go." Flex executes this reconfiguration twice a day, he adds, once for the night shift (for next-day packages) and once for the day shift (which processes about 300,000 second-day air packages).

Two systems (one for domestic packages and one for international) feed package-tracking data to the UPS data center in Mahwah, N.J. This information is later used to help customers track the packages over the UPS Web site.

Once a package completes its journey across the 122 miles of conveyor belts, it's directed to a destination chute and loaded in a container, ready to be rolled onto an aircraft. Throughout the process, most packages are touched only twice by humans: once for unloading and once for loading, Gallagher says.

The containers are then pushed onto the automated scales, checked by the Distributed Weight and Balance System and put on an aircraft.

As the last container is loaded, the hum of the conveyor belts momentarily ceases and Worldport grows almost silent. But not for long. In just a matter of hours, another team of Worldport TSG technicians will start to check IT hardware in preparation for the day shift, and Flex will start to build a new sort plan and reconfigure systems for the hub that rarely rests.

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IT Drives the UPS Machine

Automation at the Worldport hub speeds up package sorting, cuts manual labor and helps UPS compete with rival FedEx.

An igloo-shaped container of packages is pushed across the rollerball floor.
An igloo-shaped container of packages is pushed across the rollerball floor.

Overhead cameras read bar codes on the fly.
Overhead cameras read bar codes on the fly.

Worldport's operations center monitors conveyors.
Worldport's operations center monitors conveyors.

A UPS employee checks a bar-code label.
A UPS employee checks a bar-code label.

Photography courtesy of UPS

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This aerial view shows the gigantic size and complexity of Worldport.
This aerial view shows the gigantic size and complexity of Worldport.

UPS Worldport:

Louisville International Airport

Physical infrastructure:

4 million-square-foot building, housing 17,000 conveyor systems with an overall length of 122 miles; built for $1 billion

Operations:

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Processes just under 1 million packages a day in two shifts

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Can sort 304,000 packages per hour

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Individual packages can be sorted in as little as eight minutes to a maximum of 43 minutes

IT infrastructure:

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5,177 desktop and industrial PCs and terminals

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505 Intel servers

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159 midrange servers, including Sun 10000s

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1,420 printers

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5,186 scanning devices

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500 networking components (routers, switches and so on) communicating over 5,500 miles of gigabit-speed fiber-optic cable

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30TB of online storage capacity

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Database system handles 59 million transactions per hour

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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