The Great Races

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How hard is it to get a package to say, Khartoum, Sudan, or to Split, Croatia, or to transport a shipping container filled with medical supplies to a hospital in Ghana? Undergraduate students from Professor John Bartholdi's class know, as they discovered in two fascinating and fun class projects: The Great Package Race and the new Great Container Race.

Running in this race are four of the major package carriers -- DHL, FedEx, UPS, and USPS. Since 2003, Bartholdi and his students have tracked packages going to designated locations to analyze the routes and determine which carrier can get a package to the final destination first and in the best condition. Because each carrier has its own freight network through which a package travels, the experience of each package depends on the structure of the network.

This is not an easy race; destinations are intentionally chosen to challenge package carriers. All packages leave from the same location on Georgia Tech's campus, but are shipped to various thematic locations. One year they may ship to off-the-beaten-path exotic locales, another year to great centers of commerce around the globe, and yet in another year, students may ship packages to their mothers who reside around the world.

"It is remarkable that most packages eventually reach their destinations, even under difficult circumstances, but there have been some dramatic lapses," Bartholdi noted. "One package was carried back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean nine times before delivery. Another was sent to Costa Rica instead of Croatia. One carrier claimed that the destination country did not exist. It does."

There have been dramatic finishes as well. In 2006, one carrier beat another to Croatia by a mere three minutes. A race to Singapore ended in a tie when delivery personnel from two of the carriers arrived at the door simultaneously, even though the packages had taken completely different routes to get there.

Last year, Bartholdi broadened the scope of his Great Package Race to create the Great Container Race. This time, running in the race were two international shipping containers filled with medical supplies. For the first Great Container Race, the class tracked and then analyzed the routes of the two containers as they traveled by alternate routes and carriers to the University of Cape Coast Hospital in the West African nation of Ghana. In an international shipment, a container might travel by any combination of transportation modes. This requires carefully choreographed handoffs, from truck to port and then from port to ship, for example. Each handoff brings a chance of delay. Speed also depends on schedules of shipping companies, throughput capacities at ports, and precision of scheduling pickups and drop-offs.

For this first race, one container traveled by rail to Savannah, took a French ocean liner to Le Havre, transshipped to Tema, and then continued by truck 100 miles to Cape Coast. The other traveled by truck to Savannah, took a Danish liner to Algeciras, Spain, transshipped to Tema, and then traveled by truck to the final destination of Cape Coast, Ghana.

Or at least that was the plan. What actually happened was that the container was stuck in Algeciras for a month due to congestion at the port. Meanwhile, the other container was also stuck, but in customs at Tema. Eventually congestion dissipated, customs worked its way through the complex bill of lading, and both shipments were delivered safely. But then, this is what global freight transport is all about: Dealing with the unexpected.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Industrial and Systems Engineering, the alumni magazine of the Stewart School of ISyE.



  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Edie Cohen
  • Created:01/12/2010
  • Modified By:Fletcher Moore
  • Modified:10/07/2016