How UPS Works

No matter how far you are from your nearest neighbor, if you live in the United States or Europe, UPS can deliver to your address. UPS can deliver to 80 percent of the planet within 48 hours, so if you live somewhere else, it's still pretty likely that UPS can find you to drop off or pick up packages. That's a lot of addresses -- and a lot of packages. In fact, in 2005, UPS delivered 3.75 billion packages and letters. That's more than one package for every two people in the entire world.

A UPS delivery vehicle in Atlanta, GA Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved. A UPS package car, or delivery vehicle, in Atlanta, Georgia.
See more UPS pictures.

How exactly does UPS do all that? What does it take to get a package from one door to another in less than two days, even if that door is on the other side of the world?

It usually starts with pickup and ends with delivery -- every weekday UPS delivers more than 14.8 million packages and documents worldwide. But pickup and delivery are a tiny part of the process. The much bigger, more impressive, more complex step is the sort, which separates and organizes all those packages. It's entirely automated, and it turns one huge, random pile of packages into lots of small, organized piles.

To understand the sort, you need to know a little about what happens to a package before it gets to that step. So, imagine that three of your friends have moved to the other side of the United States. (If you live elsewhere, imagine that you live in the United States, too.) You want to send your friends a few gifts. One friend is getting a lightsaber in a box that's about 12 inches wide and 50 inches long. You've bought the second friend a LEGO Batmobile in a standard rectangular box. The third friend is getting a flat envelope containing a pair of tickets to see the One Man Star Wars Trilogy. To ship these packages via UPS, you can do one of two things:

  • Go to the UPS Web site, enter all the necessary information about your packages, print out smart labels and schedule a pickup.
  • Take your packages to the UPS store, where you or a UPS employee will enter the same information into a computer and print the necessary labels.

Either way, your packages will wind up bearing labels that have conventional bar codes and UPS maxi codes. Throughout the shipping process, machines and UPS employees can use bar-code scanners to read these codes and retrieve the information originally entered into the computer. This is why you can get real-time updates on where your packages are at the UPS Web site. The label also includes important information, like the delivery address, in print so that humans can read it. While not every package winds up with a smart label, more than 95 percent of the packages that travel via UPS do.

Once your packages have smart labels, they travel, usually by truck, to a local or regional sorting facility. There, employees scan the labels to determine where the packages need to go. If their destination is more than 200 miles away, the packages will travel by air -- less than 200 miles, and they go by truck.

Since your friends live on the other side of the country, your packages go into a cargo container. This container is large and domed so it can fit against the curves of the inside of an airplane. These containers can weigh as much as two tons. UPS employees can move them with minimal effort, though, since the airplane floors and airport concourses have built-in ball bearings and caster wheels on which the cans roll. This video will give you a glimpse of the ball-bearing floors in action.

UPS 757 at Worldport dock Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved. Filling an airplane's cargo bay with packages would be nearly impossible. UPS instead loads them into contoured containers that fit the interior of the plane.


UPS Worldport

Once the containers are loaded on the plane, the plane carries them to Worldport -- the UPS Global Operations Center -- in Louisville, Kentucky. Worldport is where the sort happens.

Worldport is enormous, bigger than the adjacent Louisville International Airport's passenger terminal, and an upcoming $1 billion expansion will make it even bigger. Currently, eighty football fields could fit inside, and if you walked all the way around the perimeter you'd travel five miles. Worldport is too enormous to be air conditioned efficiently, so its exterior is painted white. Its interior resembles a rain forest made of roller coasters.

Aerial view of the UPS worldport Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved. The UPS Worldport, viewed from above

At most airports, people use brightly-colored cones or flares to manually direct the pilots as they land and taxi. But at Worldport, pilots steer the plane to a painted box marked with the model of the plane. Mirrors attached to the buildings give pilots a better view of where they need to go.

Once the airplane stops, employees unload the containers and remove the packages. Usually, this is one of only two times that people touch the packages in the Worldport facility.

To start them through the sort, a UPS employee scans your packages' labels and places them on three different conveyors:

  • The tickets are in a flat letter envelope, which goes with the smalls. Most smalls are letters and other documents. Each small goes into its own tray on a conveyor belt.
  • The Batmobile is in an ordinary, 6-sided box, so it goes with the other 6-sided packages on another conveyor belt.
  • The lightsaber definitely isn't a small, and it's too long to go on the conveyor with the 6-sided boxes. It goes with the other irregularly-shaped packages, known as irregs. Each irreg goes under elastic straps on flat cars that carry them along the conveyor belt.
UPS wireless scanner and terminal Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved. UPS employees in Worldport and regional hubs use wireless scanners that they wear on their hands. The scanners communicate using Bluetooth and WiFi signals.

Sorters used to have to memorize lists of zip codes and addresses so they could make sure packages went onto the right conveyor belt. Now, all they have to do is sort packages into smalls, irregs and 6-sided boxes and place them on a conveyor belt with the label facing up. This is because scanners and computers keep track of every package inside Worldport. To do this, the computers make 59 million database transactions every hour. If the package's label isn't facing up, the computer can't figure out where it's headed or where to send it.

When packages are too large or irregularly shaped for in the main parcel system, they go through the irregular sort. Each package stays on a car that speeds it to the correct location for loading, much like a rollercoaster.

Once your packages are on their conveyors, they start the sort. We'll look at what the sort involves in the next section.


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.


The Business of UPS

UPS started out in 1907 in Seattle, Washington, as American Messenger Company. Its founder, Jim Casey, borrowed $100 from a friend to start a package delivery business. Casey delivered packages by bicycle and on foot.

The company's name changed to UPS in 1919, when it expanded its operations into Oakland, California. UPS unveiled an air express delivery service in 1929, but next-day air delivery didn't arrive until 1982.

Alice and Trixie arrive safely Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved. In addition to standard boxes and envelopes, UPS delivers unique packages, including live whale sharks to
Georgia Aquarium.

UPS has been a publicly traded company since 1999. In 2005, it reported $42.6 billion in revenue. It has partnered with businesses like Amazon and eBay to provide shipping options to customers. The company also has multiple retail locations where customers can do things like drop off packages, rent mailboxes make photocopies. These locations include:

  • 4,400 UPS Stores
  • 1,300 Mail Boxes Etc. stores
  • 100 UPS Customer Centers
  • 17,000 authorized outlets

Customers also view 18.5 million pages and make about 10 million package tracking requests at every day.

But picking up and delivering package is not all that UPS does. It carries mail and packages for one customer that most people would think of as a competitor - the United States Postal Service. In addition, UPS Supply Chain Solutions oversees some surprising jobs for other companies. Basically, UPS takes care of warehousing, shipping, delivery, logistics, repair and customs brokerage for businesses. It also offers consulting services to businesses to help them refine their warehousing, shipping and logistics practices.

A UPS employee uses a scanner Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved. A UPS employee uses a scanner in a Supply Chain
Solutions warehouse.

One such company is Toshiba. If you buy a Toshiba laptop and it breaks, UPS will:

  • Send you a return-shipping box that your laptop will fit in
  • Repair the laptop
  • Ship it back to you

In other words, everyone who handles your laptop works for UPS, not Toshiba.

UPS is also in charge for inventory and shipping for several other companies, including Rolls-Royce. Some companies don't publicize their relationship with UPS, but if you order underwear from Jockey or a baseball bat from Louisville Slugger, your purchase will come straight from UPS rather than the company you ordered from.

The UPS Culture

As a company, UPS focuses its attention on:

  • Safety: The company spends $38 million a year on safety training, which covers everything from proper body mechanics at work to proper nutrition and exercise at home. As a result, UPS has lowered the number of workdays lost due to injury by more than 50 percent since 1995.
  • Employee education: Many UPS employees at Worldport and other sorting locations are college students. UPS encourages mentors and recruiters from nearby colleges to visit and work with its employees, and it provides additional benefits and perks for college students.
    Supervisors discuss operations above the small sort area in the facility's North Core Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved. Supervisors discuss operations above the small sort area in the facility's North Core. Many employees working at the UPS Worldport are participants in the Metropolitan College program.
  • Diversity: Minorities make up 35 percent of UPS' U.S. employees and 30 percent of its executives. It's also recognized by Fortune magazine as one of the 50 best companies for minorities
  • The Environment: Delivering packages all over the world and moving them between distribution centers requires an enormous amount of fuel. UPS uses several methods to reduce its fuel consumption and its environmental impact. For example, it has developed a hydraulic hybrid package car, and its drivers use route-planning software to minimize the amount of time they spend idling in traffic and making left turns. UPS pilots also fly at the most fuel-efficient speeds possible to meet their delivery deadlines and run only one engine when taxiing to conserve fuel.

UPS has also established the UPS Foundation, which provides grant funding to nonprofit organizations, particularly those that focus on literacy, hunger and volunteerism.

Hydraulic hybrid package car Image © Copyright 2003 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved. The UPS hydraulic hybrid package car

UPS has also at times been the target of less glowing publicity. In July of 2006, for example, UPS and competitor FedEx received subpoenas in a price-fixing probe. The company has also experienced several labor disputes, including a 15-day strike in 1997. UPS and its pilots also announced a tentative labor agreement in July of 2006 after four years of negotiations, which nearly led to a strike.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links


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  • Caldwell, Melinda. "Safety: It's a Package Deal." Plant Services, July 2003.
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  • Dade, Corey. "UPS, Pilots Reach Tentative Accord After Long Talks." Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2006.
  • "Expansion at Main Air Hub will Cost at Least $1 Billion." Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2006.
  • Foust, Dean. "Big Brown's New Bag." BusinessWeek, July 19, 2004.
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