FreightTech 25: UPS’ ORION software doesn’t defy the law of physics. It just seems that way

ORION and its Einstein: Jack Levis, ORION’s creator (Photo: UPS)

As might be expected from a company that spends about $1 billion a year on information technology, UPS Inc. (NYSE:UPS) owns some impressive stuff. But for Einstein-loving, defying-the-law-of-physics IT, probably nothing beats ORION.

Short for “On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation,” the software program uses reams of shipping data to accomplish a straightforward mission: Calculating a driver’s most efficient path for the typical shipping day, which consists of about 100 stops. The shock-and-awe comes with how ORION works. For each route per driver, ORION analyzes more than 200,000 routing options. From there, the numbers compound exponentially. UPS, a company not normally given to hyperbole, boasts that the quantity of daily route combinations available to a driver is greater than the number of nanoseconds that the earth has existed.

UPS began phasing in ORION in 2012 after a decade of development under the auspice of Senior Program Manager Jack Levis, who is considered the father of the software and who still runs the show. Today, ORION is operational across the entire US system; it is in very limited testing internationally. 

The efficiencies, at least as they are described by UPS, are staggering. So far, ORION, on average, has reduced the number of miles driven on the typical route by 6 to 8 miles per day. In all, the software helps UPS cut 100 million miles off driving distances each year. These translate into major savings considering that cutting just one mile per day off a driver’s road time saves the company the equivalent of $50 million a year in time and fuel.

UPS’ culture is heavily influenced by what it calls “constructive dissatisfaction,” which involves tinkering with something that already works in an effort to improve it. It employs that mindset with its technology in the same way it has long done with physical distribution. Earlier this month, it rolled out a navigation tool—known unsurprisingly as “UPSNav”— that feeds detailed turn-by-turn directions generated from ORION data into drivers’ hand-held devices called a “DIAD” (which is in its fifth iteration since debuting in 1991). Through the navigation tool, drivers will be provided directions in granular detail, helping them, for example, locate key pick-up or delivery areas that may be across the street from a building’s main entrance, UPS said..

Sometime next year, UPS will introduce its latest version of ORION, with a key feature being the ability to recalculate routes to adjust for factors like changes in traffic conditions. The upgraded version will also present updated route options that fit more efficiently with a driver’s remaining pick-up and delivery requests for the day.

In the U.S. the company has rolled out the first phase of a “Network Planning Tool” which, should a problem arise that threatens to choke off package flows, allows engineers to re-route traffic from the problem area to sorting facilities elsewhere with the capacity to handle the volume. It also enables pre-emptive diversions to other modes like air and rail if adverse situations prevent timely ground deliveries. “NPT will lower sort and transportation costs, and it improves UPS’ operations by providing our network with improved visibility and mechanisms to direct and redirect package volume between facilities,” said Kyle Peterson, a company spokesman. “This ability helps us avoid costly bottlenecks.”

UPS investment in, and obsession with, IT is hardly an option. On an average day, it delivers 17 million packages. In the peak period, it will average 30 million. As of the end of 2017, it received nearly 143 million online tracking requests per day. During peak, that number nearly doubled.

What’s more, UPS must maintain its super-high delivery standards during a profound change in its business model. For decades, its bread-and-butter were business-to-business deliveries that were predictable and linear. Today, it handles more business-to-consumer traffic than B23B. The present UPS network is built to support the largely asymmetrical world of e-commerce and omnichannel distribution, where packages may be delivered anywhere and at almost any time. These days, seemingly every structure in America is a candidate for a delivery node. UPS’ technology must be prepared for a reality that is here, and not going away.

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Mark Solomon

Formerly the Executive Editor at DC Velocity, Mark Solomon joined FreightWaves as Managing Editor of Freight Markets. Solomon began his journalistic career in 1982 at Traffic World magazine, ran his own public relations firm (Media Based Solutions) from 1994 to 2008, and has been at DC Velocity since then. Over the course of his career, Solomon has covered nearly the whole gamut of the transportation and logistics industry, including trucking, railroads, maritime, 3PLs, and regulatory issues. Solomon witnessed and narrated the rise of Amazon and XPO Logistics and the shift of the U.S. Postal Service from a mail-focused service to parcel, as well as the exponential, e-commerce-driven growth of warehouse square footage and omnichannel fulfillment.

One Comment

  1. I was told I could get fired for turning it off, right after I told my center manager I beat it by 12 miles and 40 minutes! Yes I know, I cost myself $ but it’s fun to prove I’m better then that Mr. Orion!

  2. There is a lot wrong with Orion. I can’t use it on my route. It actually Ware time for me. I am constantly looking at my Diar board trying to figure out what to do. And it delivers business stops everyday after 5pm. I say it’s stinks!

  3. There is not one route in my building (about 45-50 routes during regular seasons) that I have found Orion to work on. Especially when you look at the over head view shots on the computer.

  4. The software doesn’t work! No driver in my building (200+) follows it, and we beat the solution EVERYTIME!

  5. Doesn’t work period, if a driver follows it the mandated 85% he/she will have service failures, ie missed businesses, attempted schools after 6pm and truely unsafe delivers having driver cross 4 lane roads on foot. The bottom line is a net net loss to pay on average 45 minutes to a hour of overtime to save a couple of miles, and from my experience, that is most drivers experience the Orion solution can be easily beat and stay safe.

  6. ORION is a total failure. Been driving for 7 years and once this was implemented my productivity plummeted. My truck generally has 350-450 pieces on it and I spend most of my time digging and going back to stops we passed up following Orion. Time to chalk it up as a loss UPS, worth a try though

  7. The comments are true. ORION is an absolute 100% FAILURE! I am a 14 year UPS driver. I have never worked longer hours than when I run Orion. The routing is absolutely horrible as well and most drivers simply choose to ignore the debacle that is Orion just to keep their own sanity and to keep from driving down a same street 2 to 4 times A DAY.

  8. Who has 100 stops lol? i’d be done by 12 if that were the case try 160-240 a day with 20-40 pick ups