Packages Fly at UPS Hub

May 1, 2002
Packages Fly at UPS Hub Hub 2000 is United Parcel Services answer tokeeping expedited service an affordable option for shippers. This materialhandling

Packages Fly at UPS Hub

Hub 2000 is United Parcel Service’s answer tokeeping expedited service an affordable option for shippers. This materialhandling showcase stars smart sortation and fast flow. How fast? Try 300,000parcels an hour.

by Tom Andel, chief editor

Carriers likeUnited Parcel Service (UPS) are using material handling’s economies ofscale in their own operations to provide transportation solutions for customersat lower rates than these shippers could achieve on their own. UPS felt the pressureto do this about five years ago when package volumes at its air hubs startedincreasing. Even managers at its largest air hub in Louisville, Kentucky, knewthey had to do something to accommodate the projected growth in domestic andinternational air service. That’s how Hub 2000 was born. (The name waspicked for the facility’s Y2K opening. Don’t be surprised if itsappellation changes by the end of this year. Stay tuned to MHM for further developments.)

This massivebillion-dollar, three-phase project expands the capabilities of the Louisvillehub to encompass nearly four million square feet under roof. High-speedconveyors and “smart labels” on parcels read by overheadcharge-coupled device (CCD) cameras will soon play a role in processing more than300,000 documents, small packages and irregular-shaped shipments per hour. Whenthe facility is up to maximum capacity, with the addition of three airplanedocking wings, that number will approach 500,000 pieces an hour. The automatedequipment and overall process improvements put to work here will reduce theamount of time employees spend lifting and lowering packages while reducing theaverage package cycle-sorting span.

It will also keepairplanes moving.

“Our next-daybusiness is incredibly time sensitive,” says Timothy Peoples, schedulingmanager at Hub 2000. “We have only about 80 minutes from the time a planetouches down until the first one’s got to be taking off. The challenge inmaking this hub so much bigger was to continue processing shipments in 80minutes. That’s where we got into the concept of docking aircraft.”

Docking saves time

Aircraft bringingshipment from gateway cities around the world dock at three wings, each ofwhich can accommodate 14 aircraft. There are 44 aircraft-to-building dockingstations, and containers are unloaded and loaded via tugs and dollies. Thisdirect access to planes saves time.

Specially designedfloors let workers move package containers easily from one area of the wing toanother. A full container of packages weighs about 4,000 pounds, but two peoplecan move it over these floors easily, thanks to a system of balls and invertedcasters installed in the floor surface. The balls make it easy to getcontainers moving, but once a container is on the “containerhighway” inside the hub, casters take over to ensure quieter movement.

Three-way sort

Packages aredestined for a three-way sort the next floor up. But first, images of theirlabels are captured by two CCD cameras. The two cameras read three sides of aparcel to ensure that all human and machine readable information is collected.Then the packages are automatically weighed and sized so those data can be fedto the system as well.

From there they goto the pre-sort area where a Vertisorter (from VanDerLande) uses the previouslyscanned data to determine which of the three primary sorts is suitable forhandling each package. Vertical sortation at this induction point saved UPSvaluable square footage in each wing area.

Depending on theirsize, packages can either be handled through a series of sliding shoe sorters,which divert packages to the appropriate outbound lateral belt lines, or ifthey’re small packages or flat items, they’ll ride the tilt traysorters supplied by FKI Logistex. There are seven of these in the primary sortarea and eight in the secondary sort. Irregular items are moved via a discretehigh-speed transport system supplied by Siemens Dematic. Parcels travel thissystem at 1,000 feet per minute on the straight stretches of conveyor and 500feet per minute on the curves.

“Perfect”packages are scanned only three times throughout the system. These are packageswith machine-readable bar codes and ZIP codes on them. At each read, the dataare collected and a sort request is made of the database. The database looks atthe ZIP code and goes through a series of business questions that determine thepackage destination.

The sliding shoesdivert them to accumulating lines, which then release them to the outbound areain a singulated flow. This minimizes damage caused by collisions. Parcelstravel this system at 450 feet per minute.

Slanted belts dropsmall packages and flats to an induction area where they are oriented label-upon the secondary tilt trays. They go past a sensor that measures height. Thisenables the system to distinguish between flat pieces and packages so theydon’t end up in the same outgoing bag. This reduces damage to the flats.Thus, although there are 1,500 destinations for small packages and flatdocuments at each Hub 2000 wing, there are two bags at each destination: onefor “the flats” and the other for the packages — making 3,000outgoing bags. When one of these bags gets full, a light will come on toindicate to the person patrolling the area that the bag is ready for shipment.He’ll put the bag into a tote, scan the bag and the tote to link the two,then the tote is sent down to the parcel system to be sorted like a box to getinto the outbound.

The last scan acontainer gets is when it is linked to an airplane and the system is notifiedthat the package or bag is on its way.


Twelve percent ofthe packages that go through the Hub are not perfect. These are a job forTelecoding, where an operator looks at the image that was captured by the CCDcamera. That image comes up on a screen in the Telecoding department and theoperator can key-enter the information that might have been missed by a failedscan. This step ensures that the package stays smart on its entire trip throughthe building.

Still, about fivepercent of packages require manual intervention. These commonly have labelsthat are damaged or marked to the point where they can’t be read bymachine. Those are conveyed to the Sort Exception Area (SEA). Here, theoperator inspects the package, corrects the missing data, prints a new“smart” label and re-inducts the package into the parcel system.

Material handlingat Hub 2000 was designed with contingencies in mind.“Anti-starvation” logic ensures the facility doesn’t end upwith a line that never runs.

“That’sone of the reasons we opened this thing in phases, because as critical as thesepackages are, we can’t wind up with a failure,” says Tim Peoples.“You can’t bring this much automation on without having problems.It’s been two years this summer since we did our very first opening, andthere have been only a couple nights where we had to stop the operation andsend everything back to the original building. Those were instances where theupper level control or computer systems were the problem. We planned in a 20percent contingency in equipment. We know that at some time a PosiSorter isgoing to break, so in this wing we have seven of them while we actually needonly six. There’s always a spare.”

David Chevalier,president, VanDerLande, systems integrators on the Hub 2000 project, says moreof his customers are asking for help in considering such contingency plans.Sometimes that involves the development of multiple


“We usedsimulation to show all the potential what-if scenarios,” he says.“What if this conveyor goes down at 3 a.m. and you’re trying tobutton up a 747 that’s going to New York, and some of the parcels on theline are headed for that jet?”

As this is written,Hub 2000 is using only three of its eight outbound secondary tilt tray sorters.Still, these are rotated on a nightly basis so that by June, when operationskick into full capacity, the facility will have used all the sorters andthey’ll know everything is working properly. Total handling capability willbe 160,000 small pieces an hour and 144,000 packages. Further down the road, when volume justifies it, the hubwill be expanded with three more docking wings, for a total output capacity of500,000 pieces

Lessons learned

Future expansionsat Hub 2000 will be easier, thanks to the experience UPS and its materialhandling equipment vendors have gained on this project. The controlsarchitecture provides a good example of lessons learned.

“One of thebiggest things we learned was placing an emphasis on making thingsrepeatable,” says Richard Crawford, software department manager for FKILogistex’s Integration Division. “A sorter to us became a module.That’s a piece of software code. A typical job has two or three sorters.Each of those is slightly different in functionality, so we’d typicallywrite a program dedicated to a sorter, or build a panel that had just thecomponents that sorter needed. Here, even though the different sorters hadslightly different functions, we designed a control system that covered thegeneral case instead of the specifics. We used the same program for everysorter out there. I don’t think we could have done the job if wehadn’t done that. That shows how important it is to do the up-front work,building a general control scheme rather than specific schemes as yougo.”

This architecturewill also enable the material handling systems to be powerful data generators.

“All theparts are smart,” Crawford adds. “You can get statistics out ofeverything, and every component does its best to generate proactive signalsindicating when something may be about to break. A lot of these data are alsobeing archived so UPS can run trends on them later. There are a lot of datamining opportunities there.”

Deron Barnett,director of operations for VanDerLande, underscores the importance of speed atHub 2000:

“With 90planes coming in at peak and 90 going out, of all the parcels on the last planecoming in there could be one that needs to be in the first flight out.That’s why the shortest turnaround window we tried to live by is 30minutes.”

Barnett adds thatthe intuitive controls ensure system speed isn’t compromised by thelearning curve of its operators.

“We used hightechnology but with a user interface so simple that anyone could use anything inthe system with minimal training,” he concludes.

That kind offlexibility is also built into the hub’s import/export procedures.

“We’vecreated import and export exception areas so we can unload the import anywherewithin the facility and the export can be located anywhere,” Peoplesexplains. “So if a JFK plane is taking Bermuda packages, we can haveBermuda on the same outbound area we have JFK.”

The pitfalls and payoffs

Projects this sizeare bound to have red tape, especially with competitive vendors challenged towork on the same team. VanDerLande was the systems integrator for the smalls,parcel and irregular handling systems, in addition to being the equipmentsuppliers for the data acquisition solutions. FKI was responsible for thecontrols on the parcel system and provided the entire small parcel solution.Oracle provided the package sort decision software and network serverarchitecture, and Siemens Dematic was responsible for the irregular packagesystem. Vitronic supplied the Telecoding system.

Why use so manymajor players instead of single-sourcing the material handling systems?

“UPS iscareful not to put all its eggs in one vendor’s basket,” saysChevalier. “That makes good business sense for it around theworld.”

Mark Scherrens, Hub2000 region engineer, agrees.

“UPS playedits biggest role as facilitator, working through many, many meetings andgetting everybody to understand that we’re going to do what’s bestfor the job, not what’s best for any individual vendor,” he adds. “Oneof the largest things that made this successful was that everybody understoodthat solutions were going to be evolutionary. Many times engineers love to havea problem figured out and that’s the answer. Well, the answers heretypically changed as the building grew.”

The database is aprime example. UPS decided to plan a three-week shutdown just after theChristmas rush so Oracle could deploy new sortation code and reconfigure theserver network architecture. It seems that by last August, when the facilitywas ready to ramp up from handling 30,000 to 60,000 parcels an hour (PhaseTwo), UPS found out that would be their performance ceiling. Thatwouldn’t work with UPS’s plan to hit 300,000 by Phase Three in thesummer of 2002. The fix worked, and now UPS is ready for thosemulti-hundred-thousand volumes. The trick is never to point fingers —just get them working to find solutions. After all, concludes Scherrens:

“Nobody hasever ventured into this level of database management, controls or automation,and we’ve had many, many surprises. There is no shame in that. Our mottoon this project is ‘We reserve the right to be smartertomorrow’.”

Words to liveby. MHM

UPS Air Hub Stats

Material Handling Suppliers

VanDerLande:systems integrator for the smalls, parcel and irregular handling systems,supplier of sortation equipment,;

FKI Logistex:entire small parcel system and controls for parcel system,;

Siemens Dematic:irregular package system,;

Oracle: packagesort decision software and network server architecture,;

Vitronic:Telecoding system,;

AccuSort: scanners,

Material Handling Numbers

Parcel System

Posisorters(sliding shoe sorters): 96

Camera tunnels(AccuSort): 96