SOM Students Fly to Memphis for Overnight Tour of FedEx Facility
A group of Yale SOM students and faculty recently got the opportunity to tour what Professor Art Swersey called “one of the great operation systems in the world” — the FedEx hub in Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis International Airport is the largest cargo airport in the world due to the presence of a single company: FedEx. With parking slots for 175 aircraft, plus 350 miles of conveyer belts, 12,000 employees, and 3.3 million packages going in and out each day, the FedEx facility is an engineering marvel. When FedEx CEO, chairman, and founder Fred Smith, who spoke at SOM as part of the school’s Leaders Forum in 2006, invited a group of students to tour the facility, Gene Lee ’08 jumped at the opportunity.
Lee knows a bit about the shipping business. Before enrolling in SOM, he spent four years working as an industrial engineer at the San Francisco regional hub of UPS. “I lived and breathed package delivery,” he said. Even though he’s shifting industries, he couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing the world’s largest overnight shipping company close-up. “I had to go just to see one million packages get sorted in three and a half hours,” he added. “Besides, I like to see lots of trucks and planes.”
Lee joined 17 other students, Dean Joel Podolny, Deputy Dean Stan Garstka, and Professor Art Swersey, all of whom flew to Memphis on March 28 for a three-hour tour of the intense “night sort.” FedEx has its own control tower at Memphis International Airport, and the need for this became apparent soon after arriving. “It’s the middle of the night so there are no passenger flights coming in,” Lee said. “Up in the sky, there are the lights of the planes coming in and they’re lined up one after the other after the other. Every single one of them is a FedEx plane.”
Those planes carry packages from all over the world that will be sorted, redirected, and flown off again to arrive at their destinations the next day.
The process is so complex and moves so swiftly, it can be difficult to process the whole thing after a single tour. Lee came away impressed by the engineering ingenuity that went into creating such a vast enterprise. But FedEx didn’t get to be the world’s largest overnight delivery company just through engineering. “I was particularly impressed at how diligent FedEx is at reducing costs,” he said. “They used to paint the planes purple until they realized that an unpainted plane is 3,000 pounds lighter, which means they can put more packages in it. The whole thing is amazing. I stood there as packages from Europe, Asia, and all over North America were sorted. I felt like I was watching the effects of globalization. It’s as if the world’s GDP is coming through one place.”
Read about how Lee and three SOM classmates beat 62 other teams to win the 2007 Operations Simulation Competition.