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Extreme automation: FedEx Ground hubs speed deliveries

Julia King | June 6, 2011
FedEx Ground's hubs sort 3.5 million packages a day without human intervention, helping the courier win market share.

"The cost of our network implementation was driven up significantly with the redundancy, but the [payoff] is zero outages in our environment," Spangler says.

In the big picture, this automation enables FedEx to keep customers continually informed of their packages' whereabouts.

FedEx Ground commits to publishing package tracking and location data for customer viewing within 15 minutes of taking custody of a package. But in reality, Spangler says, "it's near-real-time: We generally see publishing on an average of five minutes."

The process also works in reverse. Many of FedEx Ground's largest customers, like Hallmark, electronically feed shipping data to the carrier before their packages are picked up. It takes one to three minutes to configure ISS with the customer's shipping specifications and be ready to sort and ship accordingly, Spangler says.

The bottom line: Where FedEx Ground was once nimble, "we're now extremely nimble," Spangler says.

And in a competition measured in milliseconds, that makes a big difference.

Sorting Out the Architecture

Ken Spangler, CIO of FedEx Ground, calls them "special forces."

Headed by Chief Architect Shawn Weis, a 12-year veteran of FedEx, the team that developed FedEx Ground's Integrated Sortation System started with four members -- all software engineers -- and grew to seven at its peak. At the outset, they spent a lot of time in hotel meeting rooms surrounded by whiteboards.

"We went through a visioning exercise during which we sat down with our business partners and asked them where they wanted sortation to go for the next five to 10 years," recalls Weis. "What we did then was make [the software components] configurable so that, when new or different rules were added later, we were prepared."

Working with business partners across the company, the team took 18 months to design the system and another two years to build it. After that came the rollout to 53 FedEx Ground facilities, including 32 hubs, which took four and a half years.

The ISS architecture has enabled FedEx Ground to efficiently and quickly integrate new businesses. When FedEx Ground acquired its SmartPost business -- which consolidates high volumes of low-weight, less-time-sensitive packages for final delivery by the U.S. Postal Service -- it needed to integrate various Postal Service processes and data.

"There were different business rules," Weis notes. But because of the component-based architecture, the new processes could be encapsulated in service-based components and easily integrated into FedEx Ground's backbone ISS.

In the end, he says, "It's all about the architecture."

— Julia King


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