Make us your home page

Shipping technology streamlines UPS' holiday rush

When Keith Short began delivering packages for UPS 23 years ago, he used bulky pads of paper to track parcels and pens that froze in the cold. Today, Short scans packages on and off his truck with a handheld computer that tells him what to deliver where and when, and can even direct him turn-by-turn.

"The whole route is in here," said Short of his handheld "DIAD" computer — short for Delivery Information Acquisition Device.

The handhelds — now in the fifth generation — have made UPS drivers' jobs more efficient, especially during the peak holiday season when UPS picks up and drops off several million packages each day.

The ideas for improving the technology percolate in the offices of UPS' Information Services Group in Timonium, Md.

A team of 80 mathematicians and engineers there makes forecasts about the shipping world of the future and works to apply those lessons to how the parcel company delivers today. Statisticians perform advanced math to figure future shipment demand, industrial engineers conduct time-flow and work-flow studies, and software designers write the programs to apply what they learn.

It all ends up in the technology behind the routing and dispatching of packages handled by the brown delivery trucks.

"It's my job to set up a road map of where we need to be and look out 10 years," said Jack Levis, an engineer and director of the group. "We're deploying things today we thought through 10 years ago, and are constantly updating, looking at where we need to be in the next five or 10 years."

Years ago, the group foresaw the growth of the Internet as a marketplace for buying and tracking goods that UPS would need to deliver, but few could have predicted exactly how e-commerce would reshape the shipping business.

Anticipating what customers will want years down the road is part of the role of UPS' "package process management group" in Timonium.

At the core of what the group oversees is something called "package flow technologies," a data project started in 2000 and first used in 2003 aimed at more efficiently moving packages through hubs and loading them on trucks. Before 2003, workers who loaded delivery trucks had to memorize up to 2,000 pieces of information and underwent six weeks of training to master the system.

While the December holiday rush always has been prime time for UPS and rival shippers, the online shopping boom has led to record-setting volume. UPS expected to see more than 69 million online package tracking requests Tuesday, the peak day for online tracking, compared to an average of 32 million requests a day.

That was followed Thursday by the busiest day of the season, when UPS expected to deliver a record 28 million packages. To keep up, the shipper has hired 55,000 seasonal workers to help drivers or sort and load packages.

The growth of online shopping also has brought rising expectations.

Consumers want free-shipping incentives, shorter delivery times and more last-minute shipping options, such as same-day shipping and even the same-day delivery that retailers such as have begun promoting, experts say.

To offer same-day shipping, retailers have resorted to sending packages from their store inventory rather than from a warehouse, said Al Sambar, a retail strategist with consulting firm Kurt Salmon. Those promising same-day delivery might use couriers instead of conventional delivery services such as UPS or FedEx to get it there on time, he said.

The consulting firm expects many online retailers will offer later-than-ever shipping dates, even through today, just three days before Christmas, guaranteeing Christmas Eve delivery.

"You really see the dates expanding much closer to the holiday than you would have seen in years past," Sambar said.

Shipping technology streamlines UPS' holiday rush 12/21/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 10:47pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Tribune News Service.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders

    Local Government

    LARGO — The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board mismanaged its finances, lacked accountability and disregarded its own rules, according to a scathing report released Wednesday by the county's inspector general.

    Rodney Fischer, the executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, resigned in January.  [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  2. A meatless burger that tastes like meat? Ciccio Restaurants will serve the Impossible Burger.

    Food & Dining

    TAMPA — The most red-hot hamburger in the nation right now contains no meat.

    Ciccio executive chef Luis Flores prepares an Impossible Burger Wednesday at the Epicurean Hotel Food Theatre in Tampa.
  3. Construction starts on USF medical school, the first piece of Tampa's Water Street project


    TAMPA — Dozens of workers in hard hats and boots were busy at work at the corner of South Meridian Avenue and Channelside Drive Wednesday morning, signaling the start of construction on the University of South Florida's new Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute.

    Construction is underway for the new Morsani College of Medicine and USF Health Heart Institute in downtown Tampa. This view is from atop Amalie Arena, where local officials gathered Wednesday to celebrate the first piece of what will be the new Water Street District. The USF building is expected to open in late 2019. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA  |   Times]
  4. Tampa Bay among top 25 metro areas with fastest growing economies

    Economic Development

    Tampa Bay had the 24th fastest growing economy among 382 metro areas in the country for 2016. According to an analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Tampa Bay's gross domestic product, or GDP, increased 4.2 percent from 2015 to 2016 to hit $126.2 billion.

    Tampa Bay had the 24th fastest growing economy in the country for 2016. Rentals were one of the areas that contributed to Tampa Bay's GDP growth. Pictured is attorney David Eaton in front of his rental home. 
  5. Tampa Bay cools down to more moderate home price increases

    Real Estate

    The increase in home prices throughout much of the Tampa Bay area is definitely slowing from the torrid rate a year ago.

    This home close to Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa sold for $3.055 million in August, making it Hillsborough County's top sale of the month. [Courtesy of Bredt Cobitz]