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Dropping packages at FedEx -- and getting paid for it

FedEx's Package Lab puts thousands of boxes a year to the test to make sure they're up to the rigors of being shipped. CNET Road Trip 2014 checked out the package torture.

Technicians at FedEx's Package Lab test a box's mettle by dropping it. And then they'll do it again, and again. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- FedEx, the world's largest package delivery service, lets customers send just about anything to 220 countries around the globe. But satellites?

The company's not yet shipping giant communications satellites, but in recent months, it has had a handful of clients -- it won't name names -- who needed to send what are called CubeSats, small devices that NASA has launched into space periodically as part of its myriad science experiments.

The problem for FedEx was how to package them up for Earth-bound deliveries. That's where the company's Package Laboratory here comes into play. For years, FedEx has put all kinds of packing through its paces, trying to make sure it is up to the rigors of going from point A to point B in the rough and tumble world of a FedEx truck or airplane, or both. Then this spring, the company opened up a larger, broader Package Lab in Memphis, giving it much more capacity for its package testing work.

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. Please come back tomorrow for my story on the company's massive express hub operation. Today, it's all about the Package Lab, where project packaging engineer David Nelson explained how the shipping giant subjects packages to a torture test -- all in a controlled environment, of course. That means being dropped, again and again, compressed, vibrated, and hit with hot or cold temperatures.

Satellites, though, were something altogether unique, Nelson said. "They were a whole new thing," he said. "We kind of scratched our heads. Satellites are real fragile and expensive."

But when Nelson and his team realized that CubeSats are fairly small, they knew they could find a solution. And that's probably why the researchers who need to ship these small satellites came to FedEx in the first place. "They said, 'We're rocket scientists, but we don't know anything about packaging,'" Nelson said. "We said 'We're not rocket scientists, but we know a lot about packaging.'"

No charge

FedEx's Package Lab has two main testing purposes. First is materials testing, making sure that any kind of package the company might ship performs well enough in transit to protect its contents. The second is testing freight to see how it does when it's severely vibrated, put in extreme temperatures, and even at high altitude. "The goal is to emulate any part of the FedEx network," said Mickey Raney, the lab's facility manager.

The secret of the Package Lab is that its services are available to any FedEx customer -- for free. Have a package you want tested? The company will do it for you gratis, although it may someday start charging for the service.

At the same time, the lab's engineers will also help any customer design a custom package for their products, also for free. For example, Nelson said, a famous guitar company recently asked the lab to come up with a package that could handle all of its different models of electric guitars, each of which have a slightly different shape. With one package, the company could buy at scale, versus having to keep four different types of boxes around. That's a common theme among the lab's clients -- trying to reduce the number of types of packages used in order to save money.

For the guitar company, as with all of FedEx's design clients, the lab's engineers come up with a prototype, and then send them the CAD drawings so they can hire someone to produce their new packages. Few clients understand that FedEx treats this service as a loss leader meant to cement its relationships with them. "They can't believe there's not a bill at the end of the process," Raney said.

Drop them, and drop them again. And again.

Many of the lab's clients send in their packages to be tested without ever letting FedEx know in advance. Every day, new packages arrive at the facility where one of four engineers will soon get their hands on them. Raney said that every year, 4,500 packages come through the lab, meaning that the engineers have to test about 25 a day just to keep up.


More adventures from Road Trip 2014

Check out the latest from Daniel's trip to the best tech spots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and more.

Once the packages arrive, and are processed, it's time to test their mettle, starting with dropping them again and again to see how the box holds up. One of the first questions, then, is whether a package is intended for domestic shipping, or for international.

That matters, Nelson said, because of the extra battering packages take when they have to go across the world. A domestic package gets dropped 10 times, Nelson added, while an "international" hits the ground 20 times.

The drop tests are meant to evaluate every side of a box that a FedEx customer might use, though few if any packages will ever actually be dropped 10 times in transit, let alone 20. The drops -- done with a machine that lifts the package off the ground and then slams it back down -- test how each corner of the box does, as well as all the edges and flat surfaces. As I watched two lab technicians put a package through the drop test, it was easy to tell that it wouldn't pass its evaluation, since after only a couple of drops, it was already opening up at the edges.

The goal here is to determine whether the package passes or fails. If it passes, the lab lets the customer know that. If it fails, the engineer in charge makes recommendations for what to do so that the box will succeed next time.

Compression and vibration

The next big test is about putting pressure on the packages. For that, the lab uses a compression machine that mimics a load being put on top of a box in order to see whether it can stay crush-free. Again, if it fails, the lab's engineers make recommendations about how to succeed in the future.

Then it's time to put a package through vibration testing. A package is put on a vibration table, and then an engineer chooses a profile -- say, mimicking being moved by truck, or alternatively, by airplane. The stresses on the packages from each method of transportation are very different, Nelson said.

For domestic packages, it's 45 total minutes on the vibration table: 15 minutes mimicking ground transportation, 15 minutes simulating being in a plane, and then 15 more minutes of ground. Internationals get double the time on the table.

FedEx subjects packages to a compression test, during which it applies significant pressure on the top. The idea is to ensure the box can withstand having lots of weight stacked on top of it. FedEx

Big freight also has another test -- being put on an angled sled and thrown backward. This is meant to simulate the kinds of stresses large packages -- like a pallet of barrels of paint -- might go through as they are moved around through FedEx's network. The problem, Nelson said, is that if you drop a pallet of paint cans, they might get dented, or worse. "Guys don't buy dented cans of deck stain," he said.

Temperature and altitude

The last two types of testing boxes get at the lab are to see how they perform in different temperature environments -- too hot, too cold, or even too humid -- and at high altitudes.

Nelson explained that it's crucial to know how a package will do when the temperature changes. In winter, he said, plastic could become brittle, or perhaps liquids might freeze. At the same time, humidity could be a problem, as a box may absorb moisture. The testing is meant to determine how a package will handle each and any of those situations.

Similarly, the altitude test is meant to see how a package does when, for example, it is moved over the Rockies, on roads that can hit 8,000 or even 9,000 feet high, by truck. Nelson said that potato chip bags, for example, might pop on such a road. Or paint can lids could pop open. At a minimum, a customer's cargo could get ruined. At worst, FedEx's own systems could get covered in liquid, slowing the whole process down for everyone.

Turnaround time

Given how many packages arrive daily at the lab, Nelson and his fellow engineers can't afford to spend a lot of time on each, particularly because FedEx wants to get the packages back to its clients quickly. The goal for turning around a package test is four days, Nelson said.

Actual testing time is much less. He said that the typical small package gets about an hour of testing, in addition to an inspection, being photographed, and entered into FedEx's database. However, large freight packages many get as much as four to eight hours of testing. Design work takes longer, often between two and three weeks of an engineer's time.

Nelson clearly likes his work. After all, while FedEx drivers are often accused of dropping people's packages, or treating them roughly, he and his colleagues in the lab are specifically asked to do that. "There's only eight or 10 people in the company who are allowed to drop packages," Nelson said, "and we get paid for it."

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.