The shipping industry is poised for massive upheaval. Can FedEx weather the storm?

The shipping industry is poised for massive upheaval. Can FedEx weather the storm?

Between 10 and 11:30 p.m., as most of this city is winding down for the night, the FedEx Express World Hub is revving up for its busiest hours of the day.

Some 10,000 workers pour into the campus, ready to begin a mind-bogglingly complex ritual of steering packages to customers’ doorsteps on time. Hundreds of equipment operators zoom around the 880-acre site on warehouse tugs, pulling behind them trains of silver shipping containers shaped like half-igloos. In an earsplitting operation dubbed “the matrix,” package sorters corral boxes into a single-file line for a trip down a tangle of conveyor belts.

On this particular night at FedEx’s largest global facility, workers will sort some 1.3 million express packages. That number only swelled when holiday shopping kicked into high gear.

This logistical symphony has been decades in the making, the product of billions of dollars in investment in automated sortation systems and Boeing 767 cargo jets. During the peak hours on this night, air traffic controllers in the Tennessee city will usher in about 150 flights, an average of one every 40 seconds.

Analysts say infrastructure such as this makes FedEx and its rival, UPS, extremely difficult to dislodge from their thrones atop the U.S. shipping industry. And yet as dominant as they are, the stalwarts are also vulnerable, facing a fresh wave of potential disruption.

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