The real holiday crush

Inside the 'lab' where shipping workhorse UPS invents safe-packaging solutions

Five men and two women in Addison, Ill., could determine whether Suzie and Jimmy McGilicutty get what they want for the holidays.

As the top packaging engineers for the United Postal Service, they have helped design the boxes and bubble wrap used by almost every major retailer and mom-and-pop business that sends purchases by ground and air.

In the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, their designs will be put to the test. The US Postal Service estimates it will handle an average of 150 million pieces of mail each day, and UPS expects to deliver more than 325 million packages worldwide. (Tomorrow, the company's peak day most years, more than 19 million packages are predicted to move.)

Private companies seeking quick packaging solutions often turn to the UPS engineers only months before offering a new product. In a world revolutionized by e-commerce, where just about anything can be bought online, their packaging projects have ranged from the mundane (TVs, VCRs) to the truly ground-breaking (live lobsters, crates of earthworms).

"I enjoy coming to work every day," says Patrick McDavid, who has worked with UPS for three years since earning his degree in package engineering. "You're always solving problems, but you know there's going to be a solution for everything you're working on."

Nestled in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, the laboratory has a warehouse atmosphere. And it's littered with different gizmos and machines that amount to a fragile item's worst nightmare. They include: vibration tables programmed to simulate the rollicking of a delivery truck and a mechanical arm that drops packages from perilous heights.

And then there's the guillotine-shaped SMITE test, which drops a 50-pound bar onto the center of long and narrow packages often used to encase golf clubs and fishing rods.

All the measures are designed to gauge the maximum amount of wear and tear a package can withstand. Lab director Chad Thompson, who has been in the package destruction/construction business for 11 years, has run thousands of packages through the battery of tests.

"You name it, we've seen it and worked with it," says Mr. Thompson, who pointed to canisters of earthworms as his strangest packaging task thus far. "The canisters were breaking and making a huge mess, with worms crawling around."

The job has its peculiarities. But Thompson believes e-commerce has made package trouble-shooting indispensable. "Companies are losing the face-to-face contact with their customer," he says. "When the package arrives at the door, it is making the first true impression on that customer. It has to have a highly professional presence when it gets delivered."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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