Around this time last year, Atlanta-based shipping giant UPS was running behind on deliveries: more than three million packages a day were arriving late.
In response, the company announced that it would invest about $7 billion on new facilities. This included a new southeast regional “super hub” a mile away from the Fulton County Airport near the Six Flags theme park.
It’s about the size of 19 football fields and the outside looks like any other warehouse.
But inside, it’s a maze. Eighteen miles of conveyor belts are diagonally stacked above each other. Look up towards the ceiling and millions of packages zip past — faster than the blink of an eye.
The boxes are tagged with smart labels, which carry information like origin and destination. Then they race through multiple scanners, including one that looks like a red camera tunnel. Kim Krebs, a media relations manager with UPS, explained it’s also called a six-sided scanner, during a tour of the facility.
“Regardless of the positioning of the box and where that smart label with all that information of where the box needs to go is, you can get it on all sides,” Krebs said.
This is just one way UPS is trying to improve its on-time delivery rate. With smarter technology, more automation, and fewer people sorting by hand.
The Atlanta facility’s human resources director Chris Franzoni, said there are about 3,000 people who work here in four shifts. About 700 people work alongside the machines at one time.
“We have a day sort, a twilight, a midnight and a sunrise position,” Franzoni said. “So basically we have a 24-hour operation.”
Compared to all of the metal and cardboard at this facility, however, it can be a while before you see a human.
More companies like UPS use automation to increase speed, make fewer mistakes and save money, said Issam Moussaoui, an assistant professor of logistics and supply chain management at Georgia Southern University.
“You can turn a machine on when needed and turn a machine off when not needed without much of a downside compared to human labor,” Moussaoui said.
It can take time to hire and train seasonal employees to meet the shipping rush during the holidays, Moussaoui said. But even as more companies like UPS move to more automation — it’s not always perfect. Moussaoui cites the electric car company Tesla.
“Midway through their implementation, they realized that there are still some aspects of the company’s production process that could be better done by people than by robots,” Moussaoui said.
It may be why many employees at the Atlanta UPS facility are on the ground floor, sorting through the large and irregular shaped packages passing by them at a slower speed on a conveyor belt.
Another place where humans play an important role is in the super hub’s master control room. At any time, about two dozen employees are watching 600 cameras and sensors. Dan Koosmann is the control room manager for the daytime shift.
“By monitoring all the TVs up here, employees assist the operations down on the floor — giving them a heads up on heavy flow, and if there are jams where to move their people to keep it going,” Koosmann said.
One of the software programs UPS customers uses is from ShipMatrix. The company’s president Satish Jindel, said the software helps companies track packages, and uses artificial intelligence to predict slowdowns and help major carriers to the right locations.
“If the packages show up in Baltimore, but you added drivers in Washington, you end up in trouble,” Jindel said. “You have enough drivers, but if they’re not in the right place, the guy in Washington cannot help the packages that are showing up in Baltimore.”
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, UPS officials said the company expects to deliver more than 800 million packages.
Jindel said, this year, there’s a good chance, packages might actually come when you’re expecting them.
“I think this is turning out to be a perfect year for [the Post Office, FedEx and UPS],” Jindel said. “It’s showing to us even in the way they are approaching the customers to give them confidence that if you have more packages you want to make more sales and promotions go ahead and do that. We are ready to handle your business.”
During the peak holiday season this year, UPS had a nearly 98 percent on-time delivery rate.
Editor’s Note: This report has been updated to reflect UPS customers use ShipMatrix software, not UPS itself. This report has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Koosmann’s name.