MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The blue lights are flashing, and that means the sort is going to start late.
The blue lights don't go on often. They flash only when lightning is detected within three miles of the Memphis International Airport, and when they do, everything stops. You can't have personnel "on the ramp," surrounded by metal, in the middle of a thunderstorm.
I'm sitting inside a white FedEx shuttle bus, rain pouring down heavily and thunder crashing loudly. For me, the unexpected delay is slightly inconvenient, but for thousands of employees here at FedEx's World Hub, it's a big deal. Hundreds of thousands of packages on 140 arriving airplanes have to be sorted, and right now everything's at a standstill.
As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to this city of 655,000 in the southwest corner of Tennessee for a two-part visit to FedEx's home base. The first stop was the company's Package Lab, and today it's a look at the World Hub, FedEx's biggest express package distribution center, a massive facility that processes, on average, between 1.3 million and 1.5 million packages a night.
Finally, the thunderstorm passes, and the blue lights go dark. Only now can the operation begin. Because the storm hit right before the 11 p.m. sort, hundreds of employees who would otherwise have been actively moving packages around had to wait to go to work. When I entered the facility's security section -- think of it as a streamlined version of what you go through at the airport -- hundreds and hundreds of FedEx employees were lined up, impatiently waiting to get screened so they could go do their jobs.
180,000 an hour
To say the evening sort at the World Hub is an impressive operation is to traffic in understatement. Consider this: The hub has two sides -- west and east -- and on each side, employees bring in 180,000 packages an hour until the very last one has been processed.
It works like this: Each evening, about 140 FedEx planes arrive in Memphis from every corner of the globe -- the company serves 375 airports in 220 countries -- loaded with packages to be sorted and sent right back out on planes that will take them closer to their final destination. After being unloaded, the packages pass through one of nine input areas, and then to the "Matrix," where a front line of employees make sure the packages aren't face down on a conveyor belt (since bar-code scanners here can read every side of a box except the underside).
After the Matrix, the packages head further into the facility on conveyor belts, passing first through a scanner that reads their bar codes. Based on the information on those labels, they're then automatically pushed onto one of 19 diverters. After that they go to a secondary sorting section and then finally to "Outbound," where they'll be loaded into new containers and onto the next planes.
But more on that later.
'140 in, 140 out'
FedEx's Memphis World Hub is the largest of 12 hubs that process overnight packages and letters in the company's worldwide network. Others are scattered around the country and the globe, in places like Indianapolis; Dallas; Miami; Toronto; Oakland, Calif.; and Tokyo.
More adventures from Road Trip 2014
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All told, FedEx processes about 4 million express packages a night, and 10 million companywide, if you include ground packages. But the World Hub is the heart of the operation, and FedEx says it's the largest package sorting facility in the world.
Every night, 7,000 FedEx employees come to work to sort the 1.3 million to 1.5 million packages that will pass through the facility. A daytime shift of 3,500 people handles about 650,000 2-day and 3-day packages daily.
Commercial flights into Memphis generally stop landing at around 9:30 p.m., and from that point on, it's all FedEx. On a normal night, when thunderstorms don't trigger the blue lights, the FedEx planes queue up to start arriving around 10:30 p.m. and continue to do so, one after another after another, until about 1 a.m. The goal is that the last package will pass through the Matrix by 2:07 a.m. By 2:30 a.m., the outbound FedEx planes start pushing back from the gates, and by 4:30, they're all gone. As Hub tour coordinator Rick Armstrong put it, "140 in, 140 out."
Specific crews are assigned to offload each plane, and they work quickly, taking large metal containers shaped to fit neatly inside the planes -- and stuffed with packages -- off the aircraft and bringing them down to the ground. The goal is to unload the largest plane in FedEx's fleet, a Boeing 777, in an hour and seven minutes. The next-biggest, a McDonnell-Douglas MD-11, takes about 35 to 40 minutes.
Then the packages are loaded onto carts, and brought swiftly to Input.
At the World Hub, FedEx has nine Input sections, where the Matrices are located. Five are for packages from domestic locations, while four are for packages from abroad or that are categorized as "dangerous goods," "heavyweights," or small packages. According to Armstrong, dangerous goods can include corrosives, explosives, radioactives, aerosols, ammunition, and batteries, among other things. "We're the largest shipper of dangerous goods in the world," he said. "The list of dangerous goods is pretty thick. It's like a phone book."
Like a flood
When the packages hit Input, they're put onto one of three belts, the top, middle, or bottom. Most of the packages weigh less than 75 pounds and go on the middle belt, headed for the Matrix. Heavier boxes, or oddly shaped packages like skis or golf clubs go on the bottom belt. The top belt is reserved for small boxes and documents and they're sent toward the Small Package Sorting System (SPSS).
As the packages come into the Matrix from Input, it's like a flood. Literally. If you've ever seen video of the Japanese tsunami of 2011, with villages full of debris speeding down rivers, watching the thousands of boxes head toward the Matrix is a bit like that, though obviously without the macabre connotations.
They come in concentrated rushes -- a containerful, about 235 packages, at a time -- and seem ready to overwhelm the Matrix workers. It's a good thing FedEx's Package Lab works with its customers to ensure boxes are up to the beating they take, because they bounce, flop, jump, and crash into each other at high speed before piling up in a sea of cardboard.
From there, they head out on conveyors, passing through the first of what will be up to 12 scanners, on their way to one of 19 diverters, and eventually onto the planes that will take them to their next destination.
Perhaps the most visually stunning part of the operation -- besides the flood of packages in front of the Matrix -- is the Small Package Sorting System. Here, in a separate building, crews process between 740,000 and 860,000 small packages -- mostly documents -- a night. According to Amstrong, they are accurately sorted at a rate of 99.97 percent.
When these packages pass through Input, they're put on a belt and scanned. Instead of being diverted like larger packages, they wind their way around the building before finally being pushed into one of 1,500 bag stands that correspond with their eventual destination. When a bag is full, the system autogenerates a label, and a worker affixes it.
The SPSS system is hypnotizing, especially if you stand back from it and watch dozens of conveyor belts moving every which way, letters and small packages rushing by at high speed, and eventually sliding down a chute into a bag.
At its most complex, FedEx's hub operation is a giant machine with thousands of moving parts, all of which must be well oiled to keep the whole thing running smoothly. But at its most elemental, the process is simple: bring in many hundreds of thousands of packages every night and day; sort them by size and destination; and then put them back on planes and send them off again. Visually, it's amazing. And almost every time, you get the FedEx package right when you're supposed to. As Armstrong put it, "We have a 99 percent [accuracy rate]. And then we'll do it again tomorrow."
Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.