Once you wrap your holiday packages for pick-up or drop them off at the post office, you might think that your gift-giving duties for the season are done. But a gift is only as good as the shape it's in when it arrives.
You may have bundled up your bounty with tender loving care, but there's no telling whether the shipping company will treat your packages with the kindness they deserve.
The tech-savvy editors at Popular Mechanics wondered the same thing. So they worked with a team of engineers to rig up a sensor that can tell when a box is dropped, flipped over, heated or cooled.
Then they sent it on an "epic" adventure (actually many mini-adventures) across the country with FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service, disguised inside an ordinary brown box, to test which service was best at handling a package with care.
"It's a little weird idea I had," said Glenn Derene, senior editor for Popular Mechanics and the mastermind behind the shipping experiment. "I've actually been sitting on this idea for years."
Engineers Help Build Device That Monitors Temperature, Acceleration and Orientation
But the same engineers at National Instruments, an Austin, Texas, manufacturer of industrial control equipment and software, told him they would be able to custom-make a device that would indeed be up for the challenge.
So they worked with Popular Mechanics to build a hand-sized device that can monitor temperature, acceleration and orientation and constantly relay the information in real-time.
Derene said they carefully packed the device in a box, stuffed with foam core cut to cushion it, and then sent it on about 12 trips with the three different shipping companies.
They tested overnight shipping, three-day shipping and, on the last runs, marked the boxes "Fragile: Handle With Care" to see if it made a difference.
"We weren't doing a scientific style test," he said. "We were just sort of having fun, seeing what we could find out from a couple of trips.
"But the data logger on this thing was a pretty sophisticated piece of equipment.
Postal Service Has 'Gentlest Touch,' Popular Mechanics Finds
While Derene acknowledged that the study is not (and wasn't meant to be) statistically significant, he said they still uncovered some interesting findings.
The team used the accelerometer to figure out how many times a package was dropped per trip. As a benchmark, they tested the sensor and determined that because a "moderate jostle" exerted 2 g's (the amount of acceleration from gravity), they could count a reading of 6 g's as a 2.5-foot drop.
After crunching the numbers, the magazine concluded that the USPS had the gentlest touch. While FedEx and UPS averaged three and two big drops per trip, respectively, or the number of acceleration spikes exceeding 6 g's per trip, the USPS averaged 0.5 drops.
Still, Popular Mechanics learned that the USPS flipped over its packages an average of 12.5 times, while FedEx averaged seven position changes and UPS averaged four.
The three companies were all fairly good at keeping the packages at a stable temperature, although FedEx was slightly better than its rivals, the study found.
The most surprising finding was that when the magazine marked the packages "fragile," they appeared to receive more abuse.
Key Finding: Protect Your Packages When You Ship
Derene said he was "surprisingly impressed" by the Postal Service," but when they contacted the shipping companies for comment, he learned that while the U.S. Postal Service has its own sorting and delivery systems, Express Mail flies with FedEx.
"So our package experienced both the most and the least abuse while on the same airline. This raised an unanswerable question: Does the USPS have white-glove handling that offsets FedEx's turbulent planes, or did our package just happen to catch a few smooth rides?" he asked in his article.
Derene said that while he expected the experiment to provide clarity, it actually raised more questions than they had when they started. But he did say that he came away with at least one key, firm finding: Pack your parcels carefully.
"The biggest thing I got out of this is ... make sure you insulate and protect your packages well," he said. "They get jostled around a lot. All of the companies, we talked to all of them afterwards and all of them said, 'Look, we do our best.' And I'm sure they do, but it's an industrial environment and there are a lot of machines involved and a lot of movement involved."
For more information on how the shipping companies performed, click on to the next page or visit Popular Mechanic's website.
How Did the Carriers Perform?
FLIPS (Number of position changes per trip)
FedEx: 7.0 UPS: 4.0 USPS: 12.5
SPIKES (Average number of acceleration spikes exceeding 6 g's per trip)
FedEx: 3.1 UPS: 2.0 USPS: 0.5
TEMPS (Highest and lowest temperatures (Fahrenheit) per trip)
FedEx: 77.46 degrees (high); 51.45 degrees (low) UPS: 77.98 degrees (high); 51.18 degrees (low) USPS: 79.30 degrees (high); 47.44 degrees (low)