UPS pushes innovation with mobile facility at HIA

A UPS worker sorts incoming packages in the Middletown Hub's new mobile distribution center at Harrisburg International Airport. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

The future of logistics comes in a box, and one of those boxes is here in Central Pennsylvania.

United Parcel Service in November debuted a new mobile distribution center — dubbed its “hub in a box” concept — on a former employee parking lot at the east end of Harrisburg International Airport.

The 17,000-square-foot sorting facility, built inside a pre-fabricated structure, helped UPS add extra Harrisburg-area capacity during the peak holiday rush, but the project is about more than coping with Christmas presents or the region’s growing air-cargo loads.

Officials with the world’s largest package delivery company say that lessons about flexibility and innovation learned at the new hub are finding an audience across the UPS system.

“After 2015 success in Harrisburg, that concept is going to be used elsewhere in the country for seasonal, flexible holiday processing capacity,” UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg said.

Sure, the holidays are intense: coping with the volume of traffic around Cyber Monday — the online shopping rush after Thanksgiving — saw the facility’s staff swell to 119 workers and about 40 supervisors, said Matt Taylor, business manager for what’s known as the Middletown Hub. But even at the height of summer, there are still 86 workers and 27 supervisors assigned to the building.

Designed to handle up to 100,000 packages per day, the facility currently is set up to process 40,000, UPS industrial engineer coordinator Joe Rizza said, but reached as many as 92,000 during the holiday peak.

UPS’ Harrisburg operations overall include 1,524 employees, 156 delivery trucks, 262 tractors and one aircraft. Of that, 16 trucks are assigned to the new facility, officials said. A recent visit demonstrated what keeps workers busy.

Amy Spangler

The new hub, which operates Sunday through Friday, has 10 inbound doors, where packages arrive, and 32 outbound doors, where they are loaded into trucks for local delivery.

Between the two sets of doors, boxes follow a path that combines brawn, brains and modern technology.

Human hands unload, process and re-load parcels with the aid of computerized scanners that help sort them more quickly and efficiently. Featuring light-up slots — reminiscent of a giant Bingo grid — the technology guides workers as they assemble nylon delivery bags full of boxes for assignment to particular routes.

While such technology is not unique to the new hub, use of changeable conveyor-line configurations rather than traditional fixed systems is a key innovation that is being watched across the company. The site has experimented with different arrangements as an effort to adapt to changing demand and conditions.

“They’re coming from all over just to see what we’re doing here,” Taylor said.

Why put the hub at HIA in the first place? Need, and an eye on the future.

The presence of many heavy shippers, including Amazon’s Cumberland County distribution center, prompted UPS to add capacity in order to ease the strain on its area facilities, which include a Harrisburg hub on South 19th Street in Swatara Township, and its existing airport site, which is separate from the new building, Harrisburg Hub Division Manager Larry Derr pointed out.

Amy Spangler

The midstate’s transportation infrastructure — including Interstate highways 81 and 83, as well as HIA — also was a draw, as was the region’s growing prominence as a prime location for distribution facilities. The trends created both need and an ideal place to test out new concepts, Taylor explained.

With that in mind, UPS last summer inked a lease with the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, HIA’s parent for seven acres of space. The 36-month agreement, which includes options for two 12-month extensions, will generate $168,000 per year in revenue for the authority, SARAA officials said.

Despite its relative proximity to HIA, the $7 million UPS compound on Airport Drive is physically separate from jet facilities and designed to serve tractor-trailers, not planes. In fact, officials added, its primary traffic — other than at peak season — is ground freight.

Amy Spangler

Come Christmastime, however, everything is in the mix, especially given HIA’s cargo patterns. According to SARAA statistics, UPS moved more than 3,000 tons of cargo through HIA in December — 52.2 percent of the busy month’s cargo haul for the airport, and up 11.8 percent over December 2014. That represented more than 10 percent of UPS’ 22,964 tons of cargo at HIA for 2015, when 51,400 tons of UPS traffic came through the airport overall.

The mobile hub also offered its leaders a chance to put their years of experience in various positions to work on a new project that would stand as a model for other regions.

As UPS often points out, its CEO, David Abney, began his career as a part-time package loader while in college. Taylor can relate, having started with the company 16 years ago, then staying with it after earning a business degree.

Rizza, who has 29 years with the company, much of that time in various leadership roles, has seen many talented people grow into managers and help mold the company that molded them.

“Around here, you soon learn that we like to promote people from within,” Rizza said. “We take our best and brightest and help them develop on the job.”

Roger DuPuis
Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rdupuis@cpbj.com.

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