The Day FedEx Forgot Gus
February 21, 2006
by Arthur Dutra
The one thing that every team thinks they want every year is for the FedEx truck to come just a little bit later so they can get just a little more work done on the robot. But what if you really get what you may have subconsciously wanted? What if the FedEx truck never came? That very thing happened to Team 228 on February 21, 2006, resulting in a once-in-a-lifetime story of what they went through to make sure their robot shipped. So sit down, get some popcorn, and relax after the end of a long build season, and hear our story - the story of a forgotten crate and some amazing luck.
The day started off like any other day of the build season, just a little earlier. As the student and mentors started coming in at eight in the morning, no on expected or even fathomed the amount of drama that would occur just twelve hours later. After working feverously through lunch to try to finish mounting the pan and tilt turret on the robot, as well as finish up the human player ball loader. Just a few minutes prior, the programming team had finished their code for getting the CMUcam2 pan and tilt to correspond to the robot turret and shooter tilt mechanisms. The robot was coming along nicely, but we knew we would not be able to finish up a few last things.
So out came the shipping crate and a bunch of boxes to pack stuff into. A few extra poof balls were sacrificed on the band saw (read: sliced in half) to make custom padding for the critical robot components. As the shadows waned, and the clock approached three o’clock, we finished crating up the robot, before the FedEx truck came to pick it up. All around the shop, team members and the mentors were letting out long sighs, as the long build season came to a close, and we had a robot being shipped that we were very proud of. But the real action was only beginning.
Just as the last panel was being bolted in place on the crate, one of the team mentors could not find the bar code shipping label for the side of the crate. Everything was everywhere. Anywhere you looked, you could find just about anything from vise-grip pliers to random pneumatic fittings to various sketches of various robot components. (I would have said CAD drawings instead of sketches, but our team engineer loves using good old graph paper and pencil to design everything) It could be anywhere. Without this label, we’d be hosed. An entire team-wide search effort was initiated to look for our shipping labels. Everything in our roughly 40-60 foot shop was turned upside down three times. We searched the computer lab were we usually do all our eating and our team website / Chief Delphi surfing. We even had the freshmen look through the garbage cans. But our search for the missing labels was futile; they were nowhere to be found.
Tensions rising, one of the team mentors decided to look at his house and at his office at work, thinking it may have gotten stuck in a shuffle of papers. Peeling out of the parking lot, the anxiety level of the team was rising. It was approaching three thirty. The FedEx truck could come anytime, and we don’t have any shipping labels on our crate. A few tense minutes passed, and still nothing. A few minutes passed, and yet the labels were still not to be found.
Finally, after about fifteen minutes, a cell phone rang. The shipping labels were found, at the office of one of the team mentors. A few minutes later, we had one of our students duct tape them to the side of the crate. As they were doing so, one of the team mentors – Art, came over and looked at the shipping crate. The student who had put the duct taped the shipping labels to the crate only used short pieces of duct tape. Just as Art was about to get the duct tape to put some more on, he remembered that the crate is only sitting in a truck and/or plane, and that it’s enough duct tape for that. (Duct tape was a second choice anyway, since the team did not want to waste another thirty minutes while Art drove to his house to get a staple gun).
With the labels found and mounted, the half the team more or less dropped dead. As soon as they found the nearest chair, they sat down and sat there, waiting for the FedEx truck to come. As they sat there, some of the students began to discuss what they were going to do for dinner. Art IV (not to be confused with Art III (the mentor) who is Art IV’s father) asked Samantha if they wanted to get a few other student together and go out to a pizza place and maybe a movie or bowling after the robot shipped. The replies came back mixed, so they just sat down and waited for the FedEx truck to come.
The hands on the clock seemed to drag onward and onward, ever more slowly. Four o’clock came and passed. Four thirty came eventually. And yet still no sign of a FedEx truck; however a UPS truck did stop in front of our school to drop off a package at the houses across the street. The anxiety and stress of the build season, which was finally over, was being released in creative ways. A few of the students on the team figured out that by spinning the Thundersticks in the Kit of Parts really fast while trying to throw them, they zoom through the air and act like boomerangs. While the students tried to whittle away time by entertaining themselves with the Thundersticks, four forty-five came and went. Four fifty came. Four fifty five, and then finally five o’clock. And still no sign of the FedEx truck.
As time went on, a horrible thought was growing in the back of people’s minds. What if FedEx forgot us? As five fifteen came and went, and still no FedEx truck, tensions were getting higher and higher by the moment. On of the students kept remarking how when we were done and waiting for the truck to ship the robot, it doesn’t come, but when we are desperately trying to finish it, the truck comes right at three o’clock to pick up the robot.
As time ticked, we began to get more and more nervous. Six o’clock came. And went. As seven o’clock came, and still no sign of the FedEx truck, our mentors and students were scared. Cell phones came out and computers were turned back on. We wanted to know what was up, and when the truck would come. And then we found out the gut wrenching truth – FedEx had arranged for our crate to be flown and shipped, just not picked up. Trying to be helpful, the people at FedEx offered to come the next day to get the robot. But unless the robot was shipped that day, our team would be disqualified for not shipping on the 21st. It was now 7:10. The nearest FedEx distribution center is an hour away, near Bradley International Airport, and it closes at 8:00 o’clock.
Our only option now was to drive the crate ourselves to their distribution center. Luckily, one of the adult mentors on our team owned a pickup truck. But unluckily, we did not know how to get a 400 pound crate into the bed of the truck. By now, two thirds of the team members had already left, leaving only a dozen students and mentors. But there was one problem – the entire bed of Art III’s (the mentor) truck was filled in sheetrock and construction debris, which water had permeated and then frozen solid. There was no way to get the crate into the truck until we got the frozen sheetrock. So Art IV grabbed two crowbars from the wood show and they ran down to the school’s dumpsters as the truck was pulled up next to it. With four students and two crowbars, the entire truck was cleared in about three minutes. Just as we finished dumping all of this into the school dumpsters, the head janitor comes out. He did not recognize us as the robotics team since it was dark out, and he thought we were illegally dumping. It did not help that Art IV was already running back to the wood shop carrying two crow bars. So not only do we have to worry about how to get the robot crate onto his truck, but now we have to explain everything to an irate janitor about to call the police. Luckily, a phone call from the team coach cleared things up, but the dumping incident only added more drama to the unfolding problem, which would soon grow worse.
Back at the shop, attention turned on how to get a 400 pound crate into the bed of Art III’s truck. Various ideas were proposed and slaughtered quickly, until some of the students and mentors grabbed a dolly cart, a 4x4, a bunch of 2x4s. By putting the timber underneath the crate and making a sort of a ramp, we used brute strength and some of the 2”x4”s as levers to shimmy the crate up and into the truck. Just as we thought we had got the crate up, we were beginning to hear splintering noises. The 2x4’s were beginning to shatter under the weight of the crate. Using one last ditch spurt of effort of brute strength, the ten or so members and mentors were able to get the crate into the truck. One more problem down, but there was many more to come.
As we picked up remains of the 2x4s and brought them back to the shop, we decided that four people would go with the robot crate as we attempted to get it up to the FedEx distribution center. Art III (since it was his truck), his son Art IV, our team engineer Ben, and Samantha (another student on the team). As the rest of the team packed up and left, we took off. The clock was already approaching 7:15. Our time was ticking.
Just as we got on the entrance ramp to Interstate 91, Art III noticed a white thing fly from the bed of the truck. Samm asked whether or not we should stop and take the shipping labels, which we had working so hard to find, off before they blew off and became lost. Hoping it was not the shipping label that flew off, we decided to continue onward, and if the shipping labels blew off, we’d let FedEx deal with it. But it was never far from our minds that such a small amount of duct tape was used to mount the labels. All Art III kept thinking of as he later remarked, is the wind catching the edge and tearing them off.
As we drove onward, luckily there was not any heavy traffic on I-91 northbound. As we began to push the speed limits past the 80 mph mark, we were hoping that there weren’t any speed traps or unmarked patrol cars anywhere. That is the last thing we needed was to be pulled over while trying to get to the FedEx distribution center before they closed. Within minutes it seemed as if we were passing through Cromwell, and then Newington, and then Hartford, and then approaching the Bradley connector. It was at this time that our luck began to change for the better, as well realized that at least it was not in the middle of a two foot blizzard like the previous weekend. As we approached the Bradley Airport, we saw a FedEx truck drive by. The driver probably thought we were nuts, as we took pictures of his truck as we passed him.
As we rounded a bend in the road, there is was. Like an oasis in the middle of a desert for a stranded traveler, we found it - the huge FedEx distribution center. As we drive into the parking lot, the last employee of their offices was just leaving. Ben darted out, and asked them if they were still open. The man replied that they were not, and they closed fifteen minutes ago. But Ben firmly stated that they would were not closed anymore, because we had a robot to ship. So the employee turned around, went to an inter-office phone, and came back a few minutes later. He asked if we were another one of the robotics teams, and he started naming all the towns that they had went to. Avon, South Windsor, East Hartford… But not Meriden. Doh’t!
But all hope was not lost. After another call to the shipping and receiving dock, we learned that if we could drop it off there and it would be shipped that night. A smiling Bengineer turned back to our car. There was one employee left in the shipping and receiving dock, they he could take our crate.
So off we went, in search of Loading Dock Six. As we drove around the building, Samm remarked that “Loading Dock Six” is the land of the misfit robot crates, and we all enjoyed the joke, as we are extremely happy that we could get our robot shipped.
As we wove between more FedEx trucks than you can shake at, we finally found Loading Dock Six. We drove our entire truck up the ramp and into their shipping warehouse. There was a sole employee who was waiting there with a robot. Cheers were let out. Finally, we could get our robot shipped. As he came over, and eased the crate off the truck with the forklift, we learned that it was only by a fluke chance that we were still there. Usually, he told us, he goes over to one of their other facilities after 8 PM. It was 8:20 PM. It was only because a co-worker asked for some help moving the last bit of packages that day that he was still there, and that he had also just finished about two minutes before we arrived and was just about to leave that facility.
After he finished unloading the crate, he asked if we were another one of the robotics teams. He told us that he was told they would be receiving a bunch of large crates that day from robotics teams, but he had no idea what that meant. So when we arrived, he began asking us all about our robot, what we did, about FIRST, and more. He was really enthusiastic about getting our robot shipped and about learning more about FIRST and the robotics competition. Soon, out came the notepads, and we had his email address, as he had asked if we could send him some pictures and video of the robot before we shipped it. This employee was the greatest ever. Thanks Tony Milner at FedEx for saving our team this year!
Had we come five minutes later, we would have missed both the office employees as they were leaving, and the loading dock employee. That would have spelled doom for our team, since had we missed them; we would not have been able to ship our robot on the 21st. That would have disqualified out team from competing in the 2006 season, which would have been terrible considering the hundreds upon thousands of man-hours that went into getting that robot finished. But, despite all the negative things that occurred, everything worked out perfectly in the end for our team. As we left the distribution center, we were filled with a sense of extreme joy and relief. Every few minutes we would all burst out in laughing over the entire incident. There would be a lot of telling and retelling of the story in the coming days. But we have now learned a valuable lesson and we have an amazing story that we will never forgot. Never wish for the FedEx truck to come “just a little later” because they may not come at all!