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Focus on Installation: FedEx Canada and the Magic Wands

Federal Express Canada's new sorting facility, loaded with top-of-the-line equipment -- and roughly 500,000 metres of cabling -- has opened shop in Toronto.


July 1, 2002  


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The future is now at the new FedEx Canada sorting facility at Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Toronto, a high-tech showpiece that opened for business in late May with the arrival of three Boeing A300 Series Airbuses on a freshly cemented tarmac.

The 342,000 square-foot building represents another technology milestone for a company that has been embracing innovation since 1973 when founder and Chairman Frederick W. Smith launched an express delivery service to 25 cities in the U.S.

Today, FedEx, the world’s largest express transportation company, employs 148,000 people and provides service to 211 countries. Its air fleet, alone, travels 688,000 kilometres — or 15 trips around the equator — every 24 hours. Each night, an estimated 3.3 million packages are delivered around the world.

In addition, the FedEx Customer Convenience Network provides more than 45,000 drop-off locations worldwide, while the 42 call centres around the globe handle more than 500,000 calls a day. The number of electronic transmissions processed every day totals 63 million.

Having adopted wireless and other advances long before they became into vogue, the company is considered a technology “trailblazer.” As an example, in 1997 it became the first transportation company with a Web site that allowed customers to generate their own bar-coded shipping labels and contact the company electronically for a shipment pick-up. Today, fedex.com handles over 1.1 million package-tracking requests daily.

Its unique “hub and spoke” system of using a different centralized location for package distribution, arrived in Canada in May 1989 when the Memphis, Tennessee company launched full domestic service. Today, Federal Express Canada Ltd. employs 5,000 employees in 69 facilities with coast-to-coast service carried out across the country that includes four Boeing-727s, four Metroliners and six C208 aircraft. For packages arriving from international destinations, a fleet of three Fokker F27s, three Boeing-727s and five Airbuses take off and land at eight airports across the country.

MEETING TODAY’S NEEDS

The epicentre for FedEx Canada, is the new YYZ Airport Sort Facility, which the company says has been built to satisfy its changing needs for a new millennium. It replaces a much smaller (112,000 square feet) sort facility at the airport, and is loaded with new technological advances and cabling design that allows sorting to take place faster and easier.

“The new facility’s main sorting plant will be able to accommodate a large volume of truck traffic and boasts the ability to have FedEx planes unload directly into the facility, through an extensive series of conveyor belts,” a newsletter from the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) states. “Given Toronto’s huge business population, the move to centralize FedEx’s sorting operations in the GTA makes perfect sense. The creation of such a facility shows just how important Toronto’s Pearson Airport is to the economic viability of the city.”

It is far more than a warehouse, says Senior Project leader Doug Tam. For now, the facility is also a hybrid of sorts, housing both administrative and sort staff. As the sort numbers grows, administrative staff may be moved to other buildings located in a FedEx Canada campus on airport land.

SOPHISTICATED PROJECT

It was an extremely complex job, which began in earnest in November 1999. Since the building uses a combination of wireless and landline technologies, the challenge for Nick Bonadie, communications engineer with the consulting engineering firm of Mulvey & Banani International Inc., was to create a design that catered to both environments.

Working with FedEx’s IT personnel, Bonadie came up with the data and voice backbone design, determined the look and feel of computer and telecom rooms and designed a communications pathway. Once that was completed, he and the IT personnel created blueprints that would make the possibility of any downtime virtually impossible. Lynx Cabling Systems, the cabling contractor on the project, was responsible for installing all communications cabling, communications conduits, wireless access points and antennas for the project as noted in the communications drawings and specifications.

Avoiding any type of downtown calamity meant that the sort facility would need a thorough computer operations redundancy plan. As a result, the building’s overall design includes two telco rooms, two computer rooms and two diverse cable plant designs.

“It changes an entire design because you’re creating a duplicate of everything, but you don’t want to run it parallel all the way down the line or there’s new value-add,” says Bonadie. “You have to use diverse routing with the redundancy to get the most out of it. You have to make them totally separate so that if there is one break it won’t effect both systems. From a cabling perspective, you have to make sure the two don’t meet.”

A CABLING MIX

In terms of backbone cabling, dual window, 50.125 um multimode fiber-optic, singlemode fiber-optic and Enhanced Category 5 rated UTP cable were installed from each LAN room and distribution cabinet to the main computer rooms.

A communications backbone running between a maintenance building, the YIB courier building located next door and the sort facility, contains singlemode and multimode fiber, low speed copper pairs for voice, and co-axial cable for FX-TV, the company’s closed circuit television channel. The job also included installing 1,800 dual data cables and 1,500 voice cables.

Traditional offices, says Bonadie, are typically much easier to design and, in fact, more often than not a template can be used. That was not the case at the FedEx sorting facility. “Here you had a lot of constraints and a lot of challenges that you don’t see on your typical jobs. You’re dealing with sort belts, environmental conditions, you’re not able to just run cable across a plenum or under a raised floor,” he says.

The communications project he talks about consisted of the following: designing full engineering services for both cable plant design and implementation (including data and voice backbone design), computer room layouts, telecom room layouts and a communications pathway interconnection.

The main sort belt and critical data areas are dual wired to separate computer rooms within the facility, according to a project fact sheet. Additionally, main sort areas have dual IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN access points installed to separate computer rooms. In addition, the “air-side” of the facility has wireless LAN access points installed for LAN connectivity to the FedEx planes.

Since wireless plays a major role in the company’s overall IT strategy, Patrique Malaise, senior technology representative at FedEx Canada views the building as a major breakthrough. “Our vision is to make the entire facility wireless-capable,” he says. “Eventually, we’ll have 100 per cent coverage everywhere in the building as well as on the tarmac.”

INSTANT COMMUNICATION

It’s all about providing instant communication for both FedEx employees and its customers. Whether a package is travelling down a conveyor belt or is tucked in the belly of a Boeing 727, it must be traceable. Malaise estimates that from pick-up to delivery, the average FedEx package could get scanned as many as 30 times. Scans take place in vehicles, airplanes, on belts and during the sort process, he says, because everyone needs to “know exactly where a package is at all times.

To provide real-time package tracking for each shipment, the company has installed one of the world’s largest computer and telecommunications networks. In the delivery process alone, handheld computers called SuperTrackers are used to scan “the progress of the package an average of five times from pick-up to delivery,” says FedEx.

Other breakthroughs have included FedEx COSMOS (Customer Operations Service Master Online System), a computerized tracking mechanism that determines the location of a package at all times and the digitally assisted dispatch system (DADS), which communicates with couriers in their
vans by way of computer screens. Once a courier returns to a van, any information is downloaded from the SuperTracker to DADS and then on to the COSMOS system.

WIRELESS CAPABILITIES

FedEx Canada introduced an industry first in 1993 with a paperless customs clearance system called ExpressClear. Today, shipment information can be electronically transmitted to Canada Customs, including commercial invoice information, so that processing of a shipment can begin while the package is still in the air.

“Customs officers review the inbound manifest (the list of shipping information for all incoming packages) to identify high-risk importers and questionable shipments,” the company says. “As the packages enter Canada, they are scanned by FedEx employees to determine which packages are to be released by Customs and which ones are to be referred for examination.”

The process will be even faster now that the YYZ Sort Facility is in operation, and much of it has to do with the many wireless capabilities. As Malaise notes: Unlike other FedEx facilities where enhancements have been made to existing sort locations, “here we had the “chance to build” and create the optimum wireless infrastructure. This was the first time we could plan from the beginning, exactly how we want the wireless set-up to be.”

The actual time for sort operation will be shortened by about an hour, says Tam, which is substantial, he adds, when you think of the number of person hours involved.

In a facility that contains upwards of 500,000 metres of cabling, all of which was installed over a hectic, but productive eight-month period, there is a Star Trek feel to the place. Just past the main entrance, an equipment room houses more than 70 wireless devices ranging from the traditional handheld units to ring scanners that are worn on the wrists of workers on the line so that they can sort and scan at the same time. These are particularly useful for any packages shipped via conveyor belt from the first floor to the third for inspection and clearance from a Canada Customs inspection.

As far as the warehousing side of the operation is concerned, Malaise sums up the operation this way: “We completely changed the type of technology we were using and added the wireless component on top of that. Virtually anything (sorters) can do with wired equipment they can now do with wireless.”

FedEx calls the scanners “magic wands” that play a key role in allowing customers to find out where there their package is in transit, “whether on a FedEx Express jet speeding across the Atlantic Ocean or a FedEx Ground tractor-trailer on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”

Paul Barker, a contributing editor with the Business Information Group, specializes in e-commerce and Internet issues.


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