FedEx SuperHub: a dazzling array of tech and speed

Radhika Merwin Memphis | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on August 03, 2016


Men and machine at work to have your purchases delivered at your door

You’ve filled your shopping cart, checked out and clicked the ‘buy now’ button. And voila! The package is delivered to you in a day or two.

But have you ever wondered what goes behind the virtual world to get your product delivered at your doorstep?

Enter the FedEx Express Super Hub in Memphis, Tennessee, spanning over 850 acres, where about 10,000 employees sort and load about 1.4 million packages every night, linking 220 countries around the world.

To say that the operation inside the buzzing facility — FedEx’s largest global hub network — is impressive is an understatement. Located at the Memphis International Airport, the SuperHub is a dazzling world in itself, boasting its own police and fire departments and power generators.

On a warm sultry night, a little before midnight, as you walk through the SuperHub you can feel the tempo rise. And it is bound to get crazier.

And this is how the process goes : each night , about 150 FedEx planes arrive in Memphis from across globe with packages that have to be unloaded, sorted and loaded back in planes to be dispatched to their final destinations.

The facility can park up to 165 planes if need be. With aircraft landing every 40 seconds the action at the facility is intense between 10 pm and 4 am.

FedEx planes start arriving around 10 pm and land in one after the other till about 1 am. The aim is to start pushing the outbound planes out by 2:30 am. By 4 am they are all gone.

Enter the 'matrix'

So what goes on between the time the planes are unloaded and reloaded back?

Once the packages are unloaded, they are sent to the input areas. Most of the packages head for the 'matrix'. The matrix is an awe-inspiring place where to watch thousands of packages head towards.

A set of FedEx employees swiftly and deftly make sure the packages aren't face down on a conveyor belt. This ensures the scanners read the bar codes on the labels.

And that's just about as far as the manual operations go.

It's all automated from here on, as the packages are sorted based on the information on the labels. There are literally robotic arms that push packages into various chutes based on their destinations and then finally dispatched through outbound planes.

Not all packages head towards the matrix. The heavier and oddly shaped packages — like maybe the golf club — go into a different sorting section.

In small packages

And then there are the small boxes and documents that are sent to the Small Package Sorting System (SPSS). An equally sci-fi genre of activity takes place here.

Housed in a separate building, the SPSS sorts about 800,000 small packages every night — mostly documents — and is nearly fully automated. These packages are placed on a belt, scanned and pushed into one of the 1,000-odd bags headed for a particular destination. As one walks over the bridge with dozens of conveyor belts speedily moving below sorting out letters and tossing them into chutes, it’s a dizzying sight.

The view is even more spectacular as one walks up to the control tower, where the FedEx fleet of planes are tracked visually and on computers as they approach and depart from the runways.

A loaded Boeing 777 is ready to take off to its destination in just about six six hours of getting into the hub. As it heads out, it hits you that buying online maybe a just a simple click for you. But the order moves across a massive physical globally integrated network, to transport, sort and get your goods delivered to you. Nothing virtual about that.

The writer was in Memphis at the invitation of FedEx.

Published on August 03, 2016
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