Date Published: 19 April 2020
The boom of fast courier delivery and next day delivery services is in demand now more than ever. For major carriers such as UPS, FedEx, DHL and TNT, parcel hubs are critical to the operation of their businesses. The hubs are the heart of the operation, this is where the majority of sorting and forwarding of mail to destinations takes place. We take a look at what happens in distribution hubs and how they work.
Most ground and international parcel hubs send and receive millions of packages every day. For instance, the UPS hub in Tamworth, Staffordshire is the largest UPS ground hub outside of the US. The facility which opened in 2007, handles both domestic and international packages, making sure every parcel or shipment gets measures, weighed and direct to the correct destination.
Parcel hubs are huge buildings, with most are the size of dozens of football pitches.
At Tamworth, the first sort (or the twilight sort) happens between 6:15pm to 10:15 pm in the evening. The night sort starts at 10:15pm at night and has to be finished by 2:15am. Some hubs will require all parcels to be processed during the night shift, so that they are ready for delivery in the morning.
When a package arrives at the hub, the parcel is sent through a scanner and packages are scanned multiple times throughout their journey which allows customers to track the parcel journey and location.
Packages are sorted according to their shape and size. Packages are filtered into one of three sorts. Regular, small and irregular. Irregular packages which are large, an unusual shape or heavy are passed through the hub’s conveyor belts, processed and scanned separately from other packages. The irregular packages are then placed on carts to be sent to outbound processing areas.
Smaller packages are scanned, measured and placed into special parcel bags, each with its destination postal or zip code added.
If a barcode cannot be read, or if the barcode is missing packages are sent to a ‘resolution area’, where a new waybill will be applied to the package.
Air freight hubs where packages from abroad are entering a country require customs process first for checks and clearance by the country’s customs officials.
The central point of a hub is the control room, this is where operators monitor all packages being processed in the hub and maintain a constant flow of packages moving through the system. Most systems have a ‘flow count’ which is a tally of the exact number of packages heading to each area in the hub and which sorting trailers need to be used at what time.
Every detail of the machinery, such as the conveyors, belts and tilt-tray systems are monitored to ensure that any mechanical issues which arise are dealt with quickly.
After the sorting process is complete, shipments are then loaded onto trucks and vans for transportation by road. The vehicles are organised by postal code, with specific vehicles heading to a particular area in the country for eventual delivery to the recipients. International shipments are transported by road to the scheduled airport, they are then loaded onto air cargo flights and flown to international destinations.