Roadnet Technologies Inc. might not exist at all were it not for the Traveling Salesman's Problem, a logistical puzzle that has confounded salesmen of all stripes for generations.
The problem reads like this: If you have more than a dozen stops to make in a single day, what is the most efficient route?
For a route with 16 stops, mathematicians have figured there are 21 trillion -- yes, trillion -- possible combinations. But not even the mightiest computer can say unequivocally which route is the best.
"There are a number of ways to get very good routes, but there's not a proven, optimum way to do it," observes Scott Corrigan, general manager of Timonium-based Roadnet, the software development arm of United Parcel Service.
"We have the software to get a good answer," he says, "but not the perfect answer."
If Roadnet is anything like its parent -- and most indications suggest it is -- the perfect answer may be in the cards yet.
Indeed, UPS' fastidious approach to the package delivery business is legendary. The company's reputation is derived, in part, from an endless preoccupation with time-and-motion studies to shave seconds -- even milliseconds -- off the delivery times of its 60,000 drivers.
Even the most seemingly insignificant details are studied in minutiae, as part of UPS' determination to live up to the company mantra: "We run the tightest ship in the shipping business."
Past study subjects: the ideal depth for deliverymen's pants pockets (calibrated so drivers don't waste precious seconds digging around for loose change), the desired speed for deliverymen to walk (3 feet per second) and the optimum shape for truck seats (beveled edges so drivers can slide off quickly).
"We've already figured out all the things to do conventionally in the picking up and delivery of packages," says Mr. Corrigan. "To improve on that, we're going to have to use technology."
That's been a hard lesson for UPS to learn. The company, founded 84 years ago as a local message delivery service in Seattle, handily dominated the private package delivery service for years without the technology.
In the early 1980s, UPS was still using pencil and paper to track packages and stopwatches to measure productivity gains. The only problem was, upstarts like Federal Express were using an arsenal of high-tech gizmos and slick new services to woo customers and grab market share.
Today, Federal Express has grown into a $7 billion-a-year business that dominates the overnight air express market. It has also earned a name for itself as a technology leader, walking off with numerous awards for such innovations as airbill bar coding and hand-held computers for couriers to handle daily transactions.
Now UPS, the $13 billion-a-year heavyweight of the industry, is playing an expensive game of catch-up.
George Robertson, an industry analyst with Alex. Brown & Sons, said he doesn't doubt that Big Brown will do what it has to do to improve. "UPS is a very deliberate company. They give things they do a lot of thought, but, boy, once they do decide to move and do something, you'd better get out of their way."
That's what happened in 1985, when, after watching Federal Express muscle in on its market, UPS started to fight back.
In classic UPS style, the company decided to "leapfrog" the competition in technology. The company launched a five-year, $1.4 billion technology initiative, including the purchase of Roadnet and II Morrow Inc., a computer hardware manufacturer based in Salem, Ore.
At the time, Roadnet was little more than a local software developer with one basic product: a sophisticated routing and scheduling program aimed at attacking the Traveling Salesman's Problem.
Roadnet, which has since moved into a modern suburban
high-rise near the Maryland State Fairgrounds, is still tackling that same basic problem. But its mission has changed dramatically.
Instead of concentrating on developing software for the general market, the unit is now focused on meeting the demands of its corporate parent.
And what does UPS want? No less than a way to continuously update and coordinate all its routing and scheduling. That's a huge task considering UPS has 116,000 ground vehicles and 360 aircraft, which together deliver about 12 million packages daily.
Roadnet continues to sell some generic programs to commercial clients, like Coca-Cola, but 90 percent of its work is geared around UPS.
Joining the UPS family of companies has led to other changes at Roadnet.
Formerly a freewheeling programming shop, Roadnet today mirrors UPS right down to its office policies (desktops must be cleared before workers leave each night), dress code (men must wear business suits, no beards allowed), Japanese-style work ethic (workers are encouraged to stay for life) and near-obsession with cleanliness (even the trash looks neat).
That transition was a bit of a jolt for the 22 employees of Roadnet when it was purchased by UPS in 1986, says Richard Foard, engineering manager of Roadnet.