The UPS Sort

How Many People Does It Take?
Machines and computers take care of a lot of important work in the UPS shipping process. But people play an important role, too. UPS has 407,200 employees -- 348,400 of them in the United States.
If you've seen the movie "Monsters Inc.", you've seen a fair approximation of the sort. Packages are sorted into logical categories by moving along a series of conveyor belts that look, to most people, anything but logical. There are 17,000 conveyor belts in the Worldport sorting facility. If stretched from end to end, they would reach 122 miles. These belts make a series of loops and twists to fit into the 4 million square feet of available space in Worldport.

The path a package takes through Worldport varies a little based on whether it's a 6-sided box, a small or an irreg. But one general rule covers all three types -- conveyor belts do almost all of the work. Worldport has seven primary conveyor belt loops, and each one has 364 stations at which a package can move to another belt. This might be another one of the primary belts, or it might be a smaller conveyor that carries only packages destined for a specific city, state, zip code, street or block.

A verti-sorter
Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved.
This verti-sorter moves packages between upper and lower conveyor belts.

When a package begins its journey, it moves from belt to belt at a speed of about one mile every two and a half minutes. Irregs and smalls -- the lightsaber and tickets -- stay on trays. Six-sided packages like the Batmobile move from belt to belt when air-powered rubber levers known as hockey pucks swing out to push them over. Since the computer knows exactly where each package is, how big it is and how much it weighs, it knows exactly how many hockey pucks are needed to move the package to another belt. Check out this video to see what the process looks like.

Cologne/Bonn air hub small package sort
Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved.
Each small goes onto its own tray. When the package gets to its destination, the tray tips it out.

Your packages travel through Worldport for about 15 minutes, and they wind up with other packages that are bound for similar destinations. When the envelope with the tickets gets to its destination, the tray carrying it tips it into a canvas bag full of other sorted smalls. When the bag is full, and employee removes, closes and replaces it.

At the end of the sort, the bag full of smalls, the lightsaber, the Batmobile and all the other packages sorted into the same pile go back into a container. Most of the time, this is the second and last time that a person handles the packages while they're at Worldport. The container goes into a plane, which takes the packages to a regional sorting facility.

Your packages' last stop before delivery is a local or regional shipping facility. There, employees scan the labels one more time and print a pre-load assist label, or PAL. The PAL tells employees which conveyor belt will carry the packages to the correct package car. It also tells the people who load the cars exactly where the packages should go, down to which space on which shelf. This helps make it easier for drivers to find and deliver packages.

The interior of a regional UPS hub
Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved.
The interior of a regional UPS hub

Once the packages are loaded into the package car, the UPS driver makes his way to your friends' home using route-planning software that helps him find his way and conserve gas. When the driver arrives, he retrieves the packages and scans them with a delivery information acquisition device (DIAD). The DIAD is a rugged, brown handheld computer retrieves package information and stores signatures. When the delivery person arrives at the door, one of your friends signs the DIAD and claims the packages.

Customer signing DIAD 4
Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved.
A customer uses a DIAD to sign for a delivery.

That's the end of your packages' story, and their journey may have taken as little as a day. But delivering packages isn't all there is to UPS. We'll look at some of its more surprising business offerings as well as its culture in the next section.