FedEx: Part 1. Tour of the FedEx Worldwide Parcel Sort Center

Original author: Daniel Terdiman
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Memphis, Tennessee. Signal lightning flashes, indicating that today sorting will start late ...
Caution, a lot of photos!

Blue signal lights do not turn on very often. They blink only when lightning is detected within a radius of 3 miles from Memphis National Airport, and when they turn on, all work stops. Personnel must not be allowed to enter the gangway surrounded by metal structures when a thunderstorm rages around:

I am sitting inside a white FedEx suburban bus with heavy rain rustling behind its walls and thunder. For me, this unexpected delay is just a minor inconvenience, and for thousands of employees at the FedEx World Hub this is a big problem. Hundreds of thousands of parcels from 140 arriving aircraft must be sorted, but for now, things are not moving.

Boeing 777 is awaiting unloading.

As part of a CNET road trip, I arrived in Memphis with a population of 655,000 in southwestern Tennessee to visit the FedEx core. The first stopping point was the parcel packaging laboratoryand today my goal is the World Sorting Center, the largest express distribution center, a massive structure that processes from 1.3 to 1.5 million parcels per night.

Finally, the storm subsides and the signal lights turn off. Now you can start work. Since the storm began just shortly before the night shift began at 23:00, hundreds of employees who were supposed to scurry back and forth, moving the parcels, were forced to wait for the moment when it would be possible to begin work. When I entered the secured sector - consider it a simplified version of the airport checkpoint - several hundred FedEx employees stood in line, eagerly awaiting screening, to finally get to their workplaces.

180,000 per hour

Meanwhile, night sorting at the World Center is an impressive operation. 180,000 packages per hour go through the sorting center until the latest is processed.

It works like this: every evening about 140 FedEx planes arrive in Memphis from all over the world - the company serves planes of 375 airports from 220 countries - loaded with parcels that must be sorted and sent by the same planes to their destination. After unloading, the parcels go through one of the 9 input sectors, and then they go to the Matrix, where the first line of employees checks that the parcels are correctly placed on the conveyor so that barcode scanners can read any side of the parcel except on which the package is on the conveyor.
After entering the Matrix, parcels move along the conveyor further into the structure, first passing a scanner that reads the parcel barcode. Depending on this information, the parcels are delivered to one of 19 automatic dispensers, after which they are sent to the secondary sorting sector, and then to the “Exit”, where they are re-packed in containers and again onto the plane.

“140 arrived, 140 flew away”

The FedEx World Center in Memphis is the largest of the 12 centers performing nightly sorting of packages and letters on the company's global network. The rest are scattered throughout the country and around the world in places like Indianapolis, Dallas, Miami, Toronto, Auckland (California) and Tokyo.

In total, FedEx processes about 4 million express (air) shipments per night, and 10 million shipments in total, including ground. But the World Center is the heart of the whole operation, and FedEx claims to be the largest sorting center in the world.

Every night, 7,000 employees go to work to sort out 1.3-1.5 million express shifts per shift. The daily shift, consisting of 3,500 employees, processes only about 650,000 parcels with a delivery time of 2 and 3 days.

Commercial flights to Memphis cease to land at 9:30 p.m., and from now on only FedEx planes land. On a good night, when the signal lights do not turn on due to a thunderstorm, FedEx aircraft line up for landing from 10:30 p.m. and continue boarding one after another until about 1:00 a.m.:

The goal is for the latest package to reach the entrance into the sorting zone by 2:07. By 2:30 a.m., the first “outgoing” planes begin to leave the sorting zone exit and by 4:30 a.m. all planes leave Memphis. According to Rick Armstrong, coordinator of the World Center tour, “140 arrived, 140 flew away.”

Separate teams are assigned to unload each liner. They work quickly: they take metal containers that have a shape that fits perfectly into the contours of the interior of the aircraft, unload them and gently lower them to the ground:

Their goal is to unload the largest ship in the FedEx fleet - the Boeing 777 - in 1 hour and 7 minutes. Unloading the next largest liner - McDonnell Douglas MD-11 - takes from 35 to 40 minutes:

Unloaded containers are placed on trucks and delivered to the entrance area:

The FedEx World Center has 9 entry areas where the Matrices are located. Five of them are intended for domestic mail, and the remaining four are intended for parcels from abroad, as well as dangerous, heavy or mini-cargo. Dangerous goods may contain caustic, explosive or radioactive substances, weapons, and, inter alia, batteries and accumulators. FedEx is the largest supplier of dangerous goods in the world, says Armstrong. The list of dangerous goods allowed for transportation is quite large, about the size of a phone book.

Parcel flow

As soon as the parcels enter the input sector, they are placed on one of the three conveyors, top, middle or bottom. Most parcels weigh less than 75 pounds ( approx. 34 kg - approx. Transl. ) And fall on the middle conveyor bound for the Matrix:

Heavier parcels or irregularly shaped parcels, such as skis or golf clubs, fall on the lower conveyor. The upper conveyor is designed for small parcels and documents that are sent to the distribution center for small parcels (Small Package Sorting System, SPSS).

As soon as the parcels from the input sector enter the Matrix, a “stream” is created in the literal sense of the word. If you watched a video of the tsunami in Japan in 2011, when the villages were washed away by raging rivers, the thousands of parcels heading to the Matrix look about the same, only without such terrifying connotations:

Parcels run in groups - each container unloaded from an airplane contains about 235 parcels . It would seem that such a flow should overwhelm the workers in the Matrix. It is good that the FedEx Packaging Lab works with clients to ensure that the packages are securely packed because the packages in the Matrix bounce, fall and hit each other at high speed until they fall into a sea of ​​cardboard. Matrix workers sort tens of thousands of packages per hour:

Parcels are then sent by conveyors through the first of 12 scanners on their way to 19 distributors and ultimately to the planes, which will send them further to the destination:

On the global control screen, FedEx employees can track the location of each FedEx aircraft at any time. The screen displays the status of dozens of aircraft over the past few days:

Small Parcel Distribution System

Perhaps the most exciting part of the action besides the flow of packages moving towards the Matrix is ​​the system for sorting small packages. Here, in a separate building, teams sort from 760 to 860 thousand small items - most of the documents - per night. According to Armstrong, they are sorted with an accuracy of 99.97%.

When these small packages pass through the input sector, they are placed on the conveyor and scanned. But instead of sorting, as happens with larger shipments, they move around the building until they fall into one of the 1500 packages corresponding to their destination. When the package is filled, the system automatically generates a tag and the employee signs it.
The system for sorting small parcels is fascinating, especially if you ignore it and concentrate on dozens of conveyors, each moving in its own direction and carrying letters and small parcels that ultimately slip into the package:

In the most difficult part, the FedEx parcel processing center is a giant mechanism with thousands of moving parts, each of which must be lubricated in time for the entire system to function smoothly. But if you ignore this, the process is incredibly simple: bring hundreds of thousands of parcels every night, sort them by size and destination, load processed onto airplanes and send them on. It looks incredible. And almost always FedEx parcels arrive on time. As Armstrong emphasized, “Our accuracy is 99%. And we will repeat this result tomorrow. ”

PS Continuation of the article: FedEx: Part 2. We drop parcels for money: FedEx packaging laboratory .

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