You just clicked “place your order" to purchase your item and now you wait for the package to arrive at your door. You’re done with a few simple mouse clicks, but the work has just begun at UPS warehouses and distribution centers across the country. Especially during the holiday season.
It’s no simple task making sure the onslaught of orders get to people’s doorsteps on time. To make it happen comes down literally to science — and lots of preparation.
UPS relies on special facilities it calls “the village” to house the uptick in packages that are bound for its centers in the coming weeks. These pop-up villages, normally in the form of a portable trailer, provide temporary sorting, packing and delivery space to assist UPS facilities across the country, and serve as the epicenter of holiday delivery. Such a village has been up and running for weeks in Hunt Valley and is only expected to get even busier as packages double between now and Christmas.
UPS has other ways to manage the uptick as well. Anyone planning to use a U-Haul between now and after Christmas might have a hard time because UPS will have commandeered most of them. They are needed in addition to the regular fleet of delivery trucks to get packages out on time.
On peak delivery day last year, UPS delivered about 32 million packages. That number could reach 34 million packages this year thanks to a shortened holiday season caused by a late November Thanksgiving. Shoppers had just three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which means shopping time is crunched. Our peak holiday delivery day depends on when Christmas falls. If it is toward the end of the week, the peak delivery hits in the earlier part of Christmas week. If Christmas falls early in the week, the peak day occurs during the middle of the previous week. This year, it’s a combination of both with the holiday falling on a Wednesday.
UPS hired more than 100,000 seasonal employees to help with the expected rush. These extra workers are needed to load delivery vans and assist drivers on the road, while some will use their own vehicles to deliver UPS packages. It is also not unusual for UPS managers to deliver packages using their own cars and trucks.
As the principal scientist at UPS, I have been with the company for 29 years and this is my 30th holiday season. Almost every year, I have delivered packages one or two days during the season, sometimes more. I have worked as a driver assistant, personal vehicle deliverer, as well as a shuttle driver, taking packages from our operations facility to drivers during the day.
Work starts at 3 a.m., or earlier depending on volume that day, where employees sort items and prepare packages for delivery. Then the most efficient delivery route is mapped using a state-of-the-art system called the UPS On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation System (ORION). This system gives drivers a road map for the best route to drop off each package. Drivers know down to the minute when they should arrive at each stop and how long it should take to drop off a package. It also factors in traffic, time for the driver to fasten and unfasten their seatbelt and the time it takes to locate each package in the truck.
Even with this cutting-edge technology, however, the job has become more challenging. The new generation’s preference for online shopping means more deliveries and packages, making the schedule more difficult to manage. Changes in a delivery schedule can change at a moment’s notice — such as when retailers offer last minute sales. And if Mother Nature is not kind, adding ice, snow or rain to the route, the problem gets worse.
A lot goes in to getting packages out on time, and at UPS that process is down to a science thanks to operations research, which helps plan how best to pack, sort and deliver. So, this holiday season, remember all of Santa’s UPS elves hard at work getting all the packages where they need to be by Christmas morning.
Ranganath Nuggehalli (RNuggehalli@ups.com) is the principal scientist at UPS who has been with the company for nearly 30 years. He is also member of INFORMS, the largest international association for Operations Research and Analytics professionals.