UPS is betting on tech to deliver a competitive edge
"I'm not saying it's monkey work now, but it's taken a lot of the thinking out of it," Haberstroh says of driving with the new tech. UPS still wants him using his brain, but now he has more time for observing what's working with current customers and where the company might get new ones. Drivers are sources of sales leads, for which they get rewarded, and Haberstroh has had a good run lately. His rainmaking earned him a snowblower, which he stands beside in a photo proudly displayed back at the distribution center. As he drives by his own home, he starts looking for a neighbor whose name he doesn't recognize. It turns out the address on the package doesn't exist. No tech can catch all the mistakes made by workers or customers. "You're dealing with humans, and humans make errors," Haberstroh says.
So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that the central hub for UPS air deliveries in Louisville, Ky., is highly automated. Renamed Worldport after a massive expansion completed in 2002, the huge complex is a showcase of UPS technology, where computers do almost all the sorting across a web of 122 miles of conveyor belts. Think Monsters Inc. with boxes instead of doors being whizzed across vast spaces--4 million square feet inside a building at Louisville's airport. Rows of small rubber mallets, called "hockey pucks," line one side of a belt, and, at a computer's beckoning, a few kick like the legs of Rockettes to push packages onto a belt going a different direction.
Near the top of the complex is the control room, where supervisors monitor the whole affair and dispatch technicians for malfunctioning belts. Richard Stasie watches the innards of the building, its matrix of conveyor belts illustrated as a dense crosshatch of lines glowing green on one of his screens. Lines periodically turn red to indicate a path that's jamming up. The average stoppage lasts two to five minutes, with 30 mechanics on call each night to make repairs. A belt that can't be fixed quickly gets rerouted to others on the matrix--all from Stasie's computer. "You can't do that if you've got humans doing the sorting," Stasie says.
Back at the St. Louis package center, Williams is still trying to get his brain fully programmed, more than a month after he started on the loading line. "I've got to check the sheets occasionally," he says, referring to laminated paper that hangs from his three package cars, each dense with ZIP codes, addresses, and the corresponding sequence numbers. It takes three or four months to get loaders up to speed with their routes, and they are jobs with high turnover--early morning, part-time, and hard physical work where pay starts at $9.50 an hour.
The new tech will "de-skill" those loading jobs, says Dante Bonney, a manager who oversees the loading line at the St. Louis center, which expects to get the package-flow tech late next year. Operators running a new set of computers where packages arrive at the center will plaster an added, "pre-load assist" label on each parcel. Those labels, instead of Williams's memory, will direct the parcels to the proper vehicle, and where on each vehicle, for loading. "It'll take days, instead of months, to get a loader trained," Williams says.
For now, a loader makes all the difference in a driver's day, says Robert Watkins, who delivers one of the routes out of the St. Louis center. For four years, he has worked the north side of the city--a hardscrabble area of small industry, stores, and residences. He knows the streets intimately, as well as the personalities along the way. He pauses to banter with a large woman who manhandles heavy boxes coming off the truck for the receiving department of one of his bigger clients. Letters, however, go around to another door, Watkins says, and the woman quickly explains why: "Because that girl won't come down here to pick them up."
Watkins winces, chuckles, and makes his exit. As he walks to his van, he wonders out loud about the automation coming his way, the unseen computer that will rework his route for efficiency and better service: "How can a computer ever know all my customers, all the ins and outs?" It's amazing, he says, to think they'll even try.