The Great Races

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.

View the story in its entirety within the Georgia Tech ISyE Website.

Great Package Race 2009

And they are off…!

This is the Recession Edition of the Great Package Race: Only two destinations, but interesting ones. And after years of choosing ever more distant destinations, this time we chose one close to home. On Monday 05 October we sent packages to Opp, Alabama and Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

  • Opp, Alabama, USA, a small town (population 6,000) in southern Alabama whose economy is shaped by small textile and agricultural businesses, and the surrounding farms (cotton, peanuts, soybeans), chicken houses, and pine forests
  • Ulan Bator, capital city of Mongolia (Note: There are alternative spellings of the city name, depending on whether transliterating from Mongolian or Russian.)

We did not use DHL to send to Opp because DHL no longer offers domestic-only air or ground express services within the US (it still does import/export).

The packages to Ulan Bator include the usual Georgia Tech paraphernalia, but are also packed with peanut butter, oatmeal, books, and favorite candies for an international team of volunteers working to improve the public health system in Mongolia.

We sent books and personal supplies to VSO volunteers in Mongolia.

We sent books and personal supplies to VSO volunteers in Mongolia.

The start: 05 Oct

This year we did not pre-announce the start, lest that tempt competitors to anticipate and plan for the race. Also, we took the packages to Kwik Copy, a commercial shipping service that feeds UPS, FedEx, and DHL. However, they were not able to accept our packages intended for USPS: After 9/11 all large packages to be mailed through the postal service must be presented for inspection at a postal facility. We immediately drove to a nearby post office to mail the USPS packages.

In both Kwik Copy and the post office the clerks seemed quite matter-of-fact about accepting parcels to Ulan Bator, but they expressed some incredulity about whether Opp is a real place. It is.

It was challenging to fill out paperwork in the post office because of an unhelpful clerk and because the usual forms had all been changed since last year.

The scorecard

CarrierCostDeliveryTracking #Comments

To: Ulan Bator, Mongolia
DHL Estimate by DHL: $134.32/wp-content/uploads/sites/589/2017/10/2009-Mongolia-DHL.pdf First! 12 Oct at 1333 8066308250 Generally regular updates to tracking
UPS Estimate by UPS: $319.04 13 Oct at 1113 46851522573 After departing Incheon, KR on 08 Oct, there were no
updates for six days.
FedEx $227.74 14 Oct at 1000 862815443400 Sent, mysteriously, from Japan south to Guangzhou, China and
then back north again to Korea. Only one update to tracking between
12 and 16 Oct.
USPS $68.25 04 Nov at 1135 CP072663035US No visibility between leaving Miami (why Miami?) and arrival
at the local post office in Ulan Bator.
Opp, Alabama, USA
USPS $6.95 First! 07 Oct at 1356 03090330000171326776 Cheap and surprisingly fast
UPS $16.82 07 Oct at 1641 46851522582 A ceramic mug was broken during shipment.
FedEx $17.58 08 Oct at 1624 828519026728

The routes

After local pickup, each package will be driven to a local freight terminal, sorted, and then flown to one of the major sortation facilities the carriers operate in the mid-western US: UPS uses Louisville, KY; FedEx uses Indianapolis, IN or Memphis, TN.

DHL was first to Ulan Bator.

DHL was first to Ulan Bator.


  • USPS was the only carrier to quote the full cost when the package is delivered to them. The other prices will not be known until the credit card bill is received weeks from now.
  • Our package to Ulan Bator seemed to have disappeared within the postal service(s), with no visibility other than recording acceptance of the package. Tracking was lost altogether beginning 10 Oct as the system was down for “system upgrades” until 13 Oct. Even then, there was no visibility until delivery — or rather, pick up. The package was sent to a branch post office, which phoned the consignee to pick up the package, despite the fact that the main post office was within 3 blocks of the consignee’s address. The consignee reported that this package “showed more wear and tear” than the others, but nothing was damaged.
  • The FedEx tracking system showed our destination in Mongolia as “Maanbaater”, which is likely an error in data input (a reliable source of problems in past races). We think this may be responsible for the fact that, from Japan, our package was sent south to Guangzhou, China, which seems to be going in the wrong direction. After three days in southern China, the package was returned north, to Incheon, South Korea.

Thanks to VSO workers in Ulan Bator for their help!

Thanks to VSO workers in Ulan Bator for their help!


  • USPS priority mail was first to Opp and was the cheapest by far to both destinations. But for destinations outside the US you must sacrifice visibility and speed. Another advantage is that the USPS prices are known in advance of shipping.
  • DHL was first to Ulan Bator, more evidence of their strong international network. UPS phoned the same day to ask for directions, but did not deliver until the next day, despite being only 500 meters away.
  • For most carriers, visibility diminished as the package got closer to Ulan Bator, which is presumably near the edges of their networks. It was not unusual to go 2-3 days between updates to the tracking system, and one gap was 5 days. USPS provided no meaningful visibility. DHL seemed best of the group in this regard, with the most frequent updates.
  • While the tracking systems displayed the actual day of delivery, several listed times that were hours earlier than reported by the recipients. Perhaps the packages were marked as delivered when they were loaded on local trucks.
  • The tracking systems of two of the four carriers (USPS and DHL) were nonoperational for at least part of the time.
  • A regular source of problems is the transcription of paperwork to the carrier’s IT system, when the destination may be garbled.

Stand by for the eventual price of the DHL and UPS packages.

The US Postal Service was first to Opp, AL.

The US Postal Service was first to Opp, AL.


Thanks to Michelle Powers and to my students for help in preparing and sending the packages; and thanks to the recipients for documenting their arrival!

First Container Race is Underway

In an international shipment, a container might travel by any combination of transportation modes. This requires carefully choreographed hand-offs, from truck to port and then from port to ship for example. Each hand-off brings a chance of delay. Velocity also depends on schedules of shipping companies, throughput capacities at the ports, and precision of scheduling pick-ups and drop-offs. Students in Bartholdi’s class track two containers as they travel by alternate routes and carriers to the University of Cape Coast Hospital in the West African nation of Ghana. The students will analyze the efficiency of the routes.

View the story in its entirety within the Georgia Tech Supply Chain & Logistics News.