Follow That Package!

Paris, the morning of Jan. 17

The shipping department here at Cristal Vendome - one of the world's largest sellers of Lalique SA crystal - calls in a pickup order to a FedEx Corp. call center. This sets in motion a 24-hour flow of information that will allow the crystal shop to track its packages every step of the way on a transcontinental journey.


UPS: Tightly Linked To Its Customers

At the M&S EDV Service computer repair shop in Niedenberg, Germany, a village 45 minutes south of Frankfurt, managing time-sensitive shipments is so important that the shop's systems are tied directly into the global network of Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc., says Joseph Reger, director for e-business at M&S.

So when M&S clerk Nadine Rutner processes an order for a computer monitor, it kicks off an automated fulfillment and shipping process that relies on a direct link between the company's IBM AS/400 and the UPS data center in Mahwah, N.J.

A customer, in Louisville, Ky., uses the M&S Web page to order the rush shipment of a monitor to replace a defective one. Rutner locates the correct replacement monitor and then types the shipment details into her secure "My UPS" Web page, hosted in Mahwah.

This simple ASCII request joins a sea of data flowing two ways across the Atlantic on a 6M bit/sec. WAN, says Steffen Muller, the UPS e-commerce manager in Germany.

In seconds, the Mahwah mainframes assign a tracking number that M&S and Computerworld will use to track the package during the next 24 hours to its final destination.

Rutner uses the UPS browser to print out the shipping label, complete with the bar codes containing routing and delivery information essential to getting the monitor through the UPS hubs in Frankfurt and Cologne.

The Mahwah computer center then forwards pickup information over the WAN to the Frankfurt hub, which sends it over an x.25 wireless data network to driver Michael Oster. Oster backs his familiar brown UPS truck up to the M&S loading dock in the early afternoon.

When Oster arrives at the sprawling UPS hub in Frankfurt, the monitor moves quickly through the facility because next-day shipments are processed before other parcels.

Scanners and digital cameras read the label printed out by Rutner and query the database in Mahwah.In about 7 seconds, the Mahwah data center answers back, "Send this package to Cologne," says Alex Bosch, the UPS export supervisor in Frankfurt.

The package is shunted onto the correct belt, placed in a bag with a master tag bar code (which serves as the data index to all the shipments in the bag) and quickly loaded on a truck bound for Cologne - with the time posted on the Web for M&S to see back in Germany.

After a Lear jet trip to Cologne and a stop in Stansted, England, the monitor is loaded onto a B-767 freighter headed to Louisville.

Back in the U.S.A

On the ground in Louisville, ramp supervisors use wireless LAN scanners - linked to the air hub control system - to manage the unloading of the plane.

The sorting crew uses overhead scanners to feed information on each incoming package over a LAN to a local workstation, which then relays the data to the Mahwah mainframe.

The Louisville hub currently sorts approximately 215,000 packages per hour. UPS has started construction of a new $1.1 billion air hub there that will boost throughput to 300,000 to 500,000 packages per hour.

The monitor is taken to a satellite UPS facility, where it's scanned again with the wearable scanners and loaded onto the appropriate delivery van. The van driver uses a third-generation, custom-developed handheld computer called a delivery information acquisition device (DIAD) to collect and transmit real-time delivery information.

The DIAD III has 6.5MB of memory and an internal radio that allows for two-way, text-based communication between the driver and the dispatcher - a light on the corner of the DIAD alerts the driver when he has a message. And, as anyone who has ever received a UPS package knows, it captures signatures electronically.

What isn't so well known is that the device can transmit data to the UPS Mahwah data center three different ways: via an internal packet data radio, a cellular modem in the truck and an internal acoustical coupler for an ordinary telephone line.

"This triple communications redundancy ensures real-time tracking in every environment," says UPS spokeswoman Joan Schnorbus.

The driver had been given incorrect address information and twice made unsuccessful delivery attempts, but the third attempt was successful. The monitor, which had been picked up in Germany at 1:17 p.m. on Jan. 22, was delivered in Louisville at 9:33 a.m. on Jan. 23. The digital signature was automatically transmitted back to Rutner at M&S in Niedenberg.

- Bob Brewin and Linda Rosencrance

The simple key to success is that the bar code of every FedEx package is scanned, on average, a mind-numbing 23 times. That's why a package traveling more than 4,000 miles can be monitored through FedEx's Web site - and why a correctly addressed FedEx package almost never gets lost.

"Scanning is at the core of our systems," says Steve Streitmatter, managing director for system design and integration at FedEx. "It allows us to keep custodial control of a package." In fact, he says, "the information about the package is as important as the package itself."

Besides allowing customers to monitor the shipment, the real-time data helps FedEx tightly manage its assets, including huge sorting facilities called hubs and a worldwide fleet of trucks and planes.

At the Paris call center, the pickup information is typed into a terminal that zaps the order over a 2M bit/sec. wide-area network (WAN) across the Atlantic to the mainframe at FedEx headquarters in Memphis. The system determines that a courier from the FedEx station near the Stade de France soccer stadium should make the pickup.

At the station, dispatchers assign the pickup to driver Philippe Loichot, who gets his instructions over a wireless data network. He receives the pickup order on his truck's Digitally Aided Dispatch System (DADS), an onboard computer mounted to the right of the steering wheel.

At about 3 p.m., Loichot pulls up outside the Cristal Vendome shop and scans the waybill on each package into the tracker. The handheld tracker is the key data-entry point: It has a bar code scanner to record the package identification number, which is matched with the destination that's typed on a small keyboard.

The load includes a shipment of a crystal ashtray, waybill No. 823507040049, which Computerworld will follow through its delivery in suburban Memphis today.

The Tracker Database Knows All

The tracker produces a detailed routing label that Loichot zips out on his portable printer. The specially designed bar-code label contains a huge amount of information, starting with the shipment's destination, the type of service delivery (such as "Priority Overnight" or "Standard Overnight") and the delivery commitment time.

The tracker's database gets updated with the latest information from the FedEx delivery network whenever the driver places it in a recharging rack at the station, which has a LAN/WAN connection to Memphis-based systems.

For example, the tracker database knows which conveyor belt the ashtray package needs to hit in order to get in the container destined for the FedEx hub at Charles de Gaulle Airport. It even knows whether there's a bad storm at the ultimate destination in the U.S., says Jimmy Burke, vice president for IT at FedEx.

Back at the truck, Loichot "shoes" the tracker in the DADS truck-mounted computer, which collects the basic information on each package he just picked up. The DADS terminal sends that information over the wireless packet network back to the LAN at the Stade de France station, which then sends it over the WAN to Cosmos, the FedEx package-tracking system in Memphis.

Within seconds, the sender can check this pickup record on the FedEx Web site. Cosmos monitors the movement of all shipments in the FedEx network - more than 3 million each business day.

When Loichot returns to the station, he unloads the package from his truck onto a sorting belt and then takes the customs paperwork into the office, where one of the few manual data-entry operations in the entire process occurs. One group of clerks keys in customs information from the waybill and shipping documents, while another group faxes the documents to Memphis.

The system ensures that customs agents and brokers in Memphis have information on all inbound shipments that are subject to import duties "hours before the plane gets here," Burke says.

The company plans to replace the manual operation with a high-resolution imaging system within three to four months, says Grahame Ritchie, FedEx's regional IT director in Europe.

The ashtray package is quickly routed into an outbound container called an "igloo" for the de Gaulle Airport. The fiberglass igloos have sloped sides that fit into the curves inside the aircraft.

Slapped on the container is what FedEx calls a consolidation scan, or "con scan." Ritchie describes a con scan as "the mother of a family of air waybill numbers" for all of the packages in that container.

Now the container is loaded onto a truck headed to de Gaulle Airport, where it's off-loaded onto a maze of conveyor belts. Overhead scanners read the bar codes as the containers snake along.

A series of metal diverters nudge the ashtray's container to the specific conveyor belt leading to another igloo that's headed for Memphis. A FedEx DC-10 plane leaves in less than two hours.

The Purple Glow of Laser Scanners

As the crystal ashtray makes its journey through the de Gaulle hub, workers use an innovative system that FedEx developed in-house called "purple light." (Why? Because the laser scanners bathe the area in purple light.) Basically, it helps workers sort the thousands of small packages and letters that flow through the facility nightly.

Each purple light station has computerized scales, a powerful overhead scanner and 30 bins with plastic bags. A voice output system - here it's in French, of course - tells workers which bin to put a package in. If a worker puts the package in the wrong bin, the voice output system sounds a warning.

Burke says this system has already paid off for FedEx by cutting the number of workers required to sort the small packages. It also "cuts training time to about two minutes," he says. "It won't let you put the package in the wrong bag."

Moreover, the purple light station increases revenue. Placing the packages on computerized scales allows FedEx "to catch a package if it's overweight and correct the billing," Burke says.

The mini-LAN in each purple light system constantly updates the Cosmos mainframe each time a package is placed in a bag. Once the bag is filled, a con scan tag is attached, and the bag is routed on a conveyor belt to yet another igloo that's headed for Memphis.

The container is weighed, with the data automatically fed into a weight and balance system, which determines the correct placement of the container in the aircraft. Then it's placed on a dolly for transport to the loading ramp. The container is loaded on the DC-10 and, five minutes later, the pilot tells observers, "You have about three minutes to get off the plane. We leave on time."

Memphis, 11 p.m., Jan. 17

At the FedEx world hub in Memphis, employees hustle to their stations as the first aircraft lights pierce the night sky. Flight No. 3 from Paris - containing cargo including the crystal ashtray - is due to arrive at 11:35 p.m.

The transport hub is beginning to hum with choreographed activity. Tug cars pulling empty dollies weave among landing aircraft. Other runway vehicles perform evasive maneuvers in an attempt to steer clear of the tugs.

"It's really controlled chaos," says Brian Proffitt, manager of international clearance support. As many as 160 planes land nightly, and teams of FedEx workers unload each within 20 minutes.

But before a plane lands, manifest information is uploaded into the critical Inbound Control System. In addition to sending data into the tracking system, the Inbound Control System feeds information into a performance database.

The performance database provides FedEx management with information such as whether the plane took longer than usual to unload, ran into weather delays or had mechanical problems - such as the balky container lid that briefly delayed the unloading of the ashtray's container.

As the packages come out of the igloo containers, they're scanned into a system that determines whether an imported package has been cleared through customs or will be selected for a routine customs inspection.

Once the ashtray makes it through customs, a FedEx worker puts the package on a conveyor belt - part of a 200-mile labyrinth of belts traversing the hub - headed to the primary sort area. In the primary sort area, packages pass through scanners that capture data such as the destination ZIP code to guide the package through the secondary sort area.

Programmed with the data captured at the primary sort, metal diverters strategically placed along a belt automatically snap forward to move each package to one of the 22 secondary channels for various geographic destinations.

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