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UPS Empowers Package Recipients

New service lets customers provide on-the-fly instructions to drivers, giving UPS another tool to compete for growing volume of e-commerce shipments.

UPS's tech-driven innovations have been centered on package shippers and employees, but a breakthrough new service focuses on the person receiving a package.

Called UPS My Choice, it lets customers set up a two-hour window in which they want to receive a package. It also lets them provide unique instructions for each package they're getting--leave it by the side door, hold it at a UPS store--and change delivery options while the package is in transit. Customers enter instructions through a Web or mobile app, and they're sent directly to the mobile device that each UPS driver carries.

That might not sound hugely complicated until you consider the scale of UPS. It moves 15 million packages on a typical day, 20 million or more during the holidays. UPS optimizes the routes to deliver those packages, and now its systems must factor in changes in real time if a customer decides to, say, reroute a package to be held at a UPS store. Letting GPS many millions of package receivers "essentially shift on demand what the driver was doing every day was a big leap for us," says CIO Dave Barnes.

Technical Challenges

My Choice gives UPS another tool to compete for the growing volume of e-commerce shipments. The basic service provides alerts, approximate delivery times, holds, and the option to reroute delivery for a fee; a $40-ayear premium service includes twohour delivery windows, the option to give the driver instructions on where to leave a package, a delivery planner, and more. About 1.65 million customers have signed up for My Choice. UPS has let shippers reroute packages en route since 2007, so it had the core systems, including Package Flow, which tracks a package through the UPS network, and the handheld mobile devices drivers use to get instructions.

But package receivers presented new technical challenges, and in all more than 50 IT systems needed to be revised to offer My Choice.

Reroute that package
Reroute that package

For example, it's fairly easy for UPS to find a shipper's particular package because each package has a shipper ID number on it. There's no such number for the receiver. So UPS had to write algorithms to search its entire inventory to find all packages headed to Dave Barnes--and know that David Barnes and even D. Barns might be right, too--at a given address. And it needs to search not just the 15 million packages being delivered today but all those due in the days around it.

UPS needed faster raw computing power, so it replaced servers with ones capable of much faster input/output operations, in part by using accelerator cards. It also uses in-memory database techniques to speed up searches. UPS teams work closely with tech vendors as they refine these kinds of technologies to "not let size and scale be an impediment" to new services like My Choice, Barnes says.

UPS sees plenty of work still ahead. Its shipping network has been optimized for known events--which packages are headed where. My Choice shows UPS reacting in real time to changes. Barnes sees UPS using predictive analytics to react to events that haven't yet happened--like seeing a looming storm that will cause delays and starting to anticipate all of the ripple effects along the supply chain sooner. "We're moving in a big way in that direction," he says, "and it's really going to take big data even further."

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