Here’s a math problem for you. Each United Parcel Service Inc. driver makes an average of 120 stops per day. There are 6,689,502,913,449,135,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 alternatives for ordering those stops. Which option is the most efficient, after considering variables such as special delivery times, road regulations, and the existence of private roads that don’t appear on a map?
Even if an optimal answer exists, the human mind will never figure it out. And while experts at UPS have been giving the problem their best shot for more than a century, the company is shifting that work over to a computer platform called Orion, which is 10 years and an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars in the making. “Can a human really think of the best way to deliver 120 stops? This is where the algorithm will come in. It will explore paths of doing things you would not, because there are just too many combinations,” says Jack Levis, senior director of process management at UPS.