The math behind tracking holiday packages

Marketplace Contributor Dec 17, 2012

The math behind tracking holiday packages

Marketplace Contributor Dec 17, 2012

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed the final three quotes in the piece. The quotes have been corrected.

Three weeks before Christmas, at the UPS distribution center in Secaucus, N.J., delivery driver Saul Colon stands in the center of a warehouse.

“Good morning everybody,” he shouts to a pack of about 50 brown-clad men.

“Good morning!” the other drivers respond.

“It’s that time again. Overhead reach!” Colon says as he begins stretches. “Reach for the sky. Nine, eight, seven, six…”

It’s peak season around here, and drivers have to be ready to go. Driver Marco Moreno shows me the back of his truck. It’s packed.

“On a normal day I deliver about 300 boxes,” Moreno says. “On our peak season, it should be about 500 to 600. That’s only on one street.”

“Why so many extra?” I ask him.

“Online shoppers,” he responds.

To handle all those extra packages, UPS had to get really good at keeping track of them. That little device you sign when you get a delivery is actually a handheld computer logs each package in the truck. It also tracks everything a driver like Moreno does. Moreno says it tracks his speed, his idling time, his seatbelt-wearing, if the doors are opened or closed, when he backs up and how far he backs up. And when Moreno makes a delivery, his device records that that package has been delivered.

All this data helps UPS save money by making routes more efficient. Jack Levis is the guy who gets all that tracking data. He’s director of process management for UPS. Levis oversees a full team of mathematicians, in a boring office outside of Baltimore. But it’s there that all the shipping plans for UPS package get their start.

Using drivers’ data, Levis’ mathematicians create maps. They look at how drivers got from one location to another in the past, to figure out the most efficient routes for the future.

For this year’s extra online deliveries, they’ve come out with a whole new routing algorithm. It’s 80 pages long.

“I can’t read it, but that’s what it is,” Levis says, “it’s 80 pages of math formulas. It solves a delivery route in about three seconds.”

It’s not just UPS that’s striving for hyper-efficiency. Online shopping’s changed the nature of shipping in general. Gary Gittings is at Penn State’s college of business. He says products used to all ship out in big truckloads to retail stores. But with online shopping the products need to be dropped at every single doorstep.

“So now we’re trying to figure out,” Gittings says, “how in a cost effective way can items be delivered in single quantities, or very small quantities, into the home.

But that personal service is costly.

“While somebody may sell you a product and say it’s free shipping,” Gittings explains, “it’s just rolled into their price that they’re charging you. It’s a wonderful marketing tool, and everybody’s attracted to it, including me and my wife,” he adds with a laugh. “But there is really no such thing as free shipping.”

Gittings says the number of purchases we order online will continue to grow. He says shipping will become even more efficient. It could even get a bit creepy.

“I assume you don’t want me to talk about the crazy robots driving around the neighborhood, right?” jokes Gittings.

Or, we’ll just decide that the convenience of delivery is worth an extra cost on all our purchases.

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