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UPS drivers go digital with hand-held computers

The computers tell UPS drivers what to deliver where and when, and can even direct them turn by turn.

December 22, 2012|By Lorraine Mirabella
  • UPS driver Keith Short uses a hand-held computer called a DIAD (Delivery Information Acquisition Device), which gives him information for each package he delivers in Baltimore.
UPS driver Keith Short uses a hand-held computer called a DIAD (Delivery… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)

When Keith Short began delivering packages for United Parcel Service Inc. 23 years ago, he used bulky pads of paper to track parcels and pens that froze in the cold. Today, he scans packages on and off his truck with a hand-held computer that tells him what to deliver where and when, and can even direct him turn by turn.

"The whole route is in here," Short said about his DIAD, or Delivery Information Acquisition Device.

The hand-held computers — now in the fifth generation — have made UPS drivers' jobs more efficient, especially during the peak holiday season, when the Atlanta shipping company picks up and drops off millions of packages each day.

The ideas for improving the technology percolate in the offices of UPS' Information Services Group in Timonium, Md. A team of 80 mathematicians and engineers makes forecasts about the shipping world of the future. Statisticians perform advanced math to figure future shipment demand, industrial engineers conduct time- and work-flow studies and software designers write the programs to apply what is learned.

It all ends up in the technology behind the routing and dispatching of packages handled by the brown delivery trucks.

"It's my job to set up a road map of where we need to be," said Jack Levis, an engineer and director of the group, "and look out 10 years."

Years ago, the group foresaw the growth of the Internet as a marketplace for buying and tracking goods that UPS would need to deliver, but few could have predicted exactly how e-commerce would reshape the shipping business.

The growth of online shopping has brought rising expectations. Consumers want free shipping incentives, shorter delivery times and more last-minute shipping options, such as same-day shipping, and even the same-day delivery that some retailers have begun promoting, experts say.

To offer same-day shipping, retailers have resorted to sending packages from their store inventory rather than from a warehouse, said Al Sambar, a retail strategist with consulting firm Kurt Salmon. Those promising same-day delivery might use couriers instead of conventional delivery services such as UPS or FedEx to get it there on time, he said.

"You really see the dates expanding much closer to the holiday than you would have seen in years past," Sambar said. "Many, many more retailers have added or expanded their ability to ship same day by creating the ability to ship from their own store inventory. [That way] they can ship even later into the season."

Anticipating what customers will want years down the road is part of the role of UPS' "package process management group" in Timonium.

At the core of what the group oversees is something called "package flow technologies," a data project started in 2000 and first used in 2003 that was aimed at more efficiently moving packages through hubs and loading them on trucks. Before 2003, workers who loaded delivery trucks had to memorize as many as 2,000 pieces of information and undergo six weeks of training to master the system.

The Timonium group turned the data behind the delivery operation into a computerized system that relies on "smart labels" that tell where packages go, while enabling UPS to customize deliveries.

"The old system worked fine," Lewis said, "but everyone had to have the knowledge of the operation in their heads. Before, we were training thousands of people where packages went. Now we just update a database, and we've made our models smarter and smarter."

Mirabella writes for the Baltimore Sun/McClatchy.

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