A hard day’s night

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Every night at 11 o’clock UPS’ European air hub at Cologne/Bonn airport prepares to receive the tens of thousands of parcels flown in from across Europe. These must be unloaded, sorted, and reloaded for next-day delivery to their final worldwide destination within a tight two and a half-hour window.

The 18.7-acre site has been subject to various expansions over the past few years, the latest of which involved the construction of an automated 323,000 square foot hub, which has doubled the site’s sorting capacity to 110,000 parcels an hour; with the potential to expand to 165,000 packages per hour in the future, if needed.

UPS invested £84 million ($135 million) in the facility – the company’s largest single investment in its history outside of the US. The three-story, automated site has three independent sorting systems, one each for regular packages, smalls and irregulars, and comprises 19 miles worth of conveyor belts.

Package sorting is now split between two buildings – the original hub and the new facility called Freight West – which are connected via two bridges – one measuring 126 metres (413 feet), and the other 152 metres (499 feet) – and contain eight conveyors to move volume back and forth between them.

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Once inside the loading bay, packages meet contact with human hands twice; from then on they are picked up by the IT control system and sucked into the automated sorting process.

The IT control system monitors the conveyors, along which cameras are dotted to monitor any mechanical failures and alert the system so that parcels can be rerouted.

The cameras feature mirrors so that barcode images can be captured regardless of which way up the parcel is on the conveyor. The image is then digitalised and sent to the IT control system. A section of the hub is dedicated to customs inspection, and sniffer dogs inspect packages that have been flagged as suspicious.

From midnight onwards a steady stream of UPS cargo aircraft hit the tarmac and line up outside the hub. Given that so much of the site activity occurs at night, the company and its pilots have spent the past few years developing ways of reducing noise emissions.

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This is modelled on a technique which has been trialled in the US for several years, and involves a programme that revises routes – so that the more populated areas are avoided, and the specific routes that are chosen are alternated so that not every place is affected each time.

Aircraft descents are also being adapted, so that the planes coast in for up to five miles before landing, which also helps reduce fuel usage significantly.

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