Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Conveyor Belt Kingdom

As you enter the UPS Chicago Area Consolidated Hub -- which our guide called CACH -- at first it just seems like a really large industrial building, not too loud, with the ceiling and walls stretching off into the gray distance. But go up a flight of steel stairs and down a walkway and you're soon in awe of the awesome complexity of the place.

Below are conveyor belts coming from large doors, with three of them merging into one larger belt moving directly below you. Then you notice more groups of belts to the left and right, and then an entire floor of more belts below the one you're looking at. Turn around, and there are belts left, right and center. Most of them are moving. Packages of various sizes and descriptions are moving along. The place is an enormous 3D puzzle of belted motion.

A bit of data: CACH, not counting the parking lots, land, etc. measures about 1.5 million square feet. It handles 1.3 million to 1.5 million packages a day, and 2.5 million around the Christmas holidays (UPS adds workers then, though most of the time about 5,700 people work at CACH). If the buildings, which are mostly horizontal, were stacked vertically, the aggregate structure would be twice as tall as the Sears Tower. And my favorite stat: the place sports 65 miles of conveyor belts.

Our guide explained that when the packages were unloaded from the trucks to a particular conveyor belt, they went under a scanner that read the destination information. The the package would travel along the belt until flip, a device that looked exactly like the flipper on a pinball machine, only much larger, knocked the package off the side of the belt, into a shoot, where (I assume) it went downward to another belt that took it further toward where it needed to be. Flip, pause, flip, pause, pause, flip -- these flippers were moving at intermittent intervals all up and down the belts that we could see, and no doubt hundreds upon thousands of them were busy elsewhere pushing packages along, out of our sight.

We also saw another raft of conveyor belts devoted to moving around smaller packages. Instead of a pinball flipper-like device, each belt featured gizmos that somehow flipped the packages up, and then over, to waiting bags. Once the bags were full, employees would take them to where they needed to go (trucks, I assume: everything was organized by bar code-like data).

At truck bays, employees filled trucks with packages manually (over 70 lbs. and more than one worker is supposed to lift together). The packages aren't uniform, so it becomes a task of stacking them like Tetris pieces so that there's the least possible empty space. Hard because lifting is involved, but even harder because not everyone can stack so precisely. The guy we saw, who was handling three or four trucks at the same time, looked like he had a talent for it.

That might have been one of the harder jobs, but what's the best-paid non-executive position at UPS CACH? Our guide mentioned it: mechanics to keep the systems going. I believe it.

A marvel of our age, this place. Ingenuous in the extreme, but simply devoted to moving stuff from Point A to Point B.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home