Tall steel cranes glide down narrow aisles between stacks of shelves four stories high, stopping to pick up the case of scripture books or the carton of manuals the computer has sent them to find. The cranes glide back to a conveyor belt and deposit their cargo with other items bound for wards and branches or individual members in places from Missoula, Montana, to Manila, Philippines.
On another conveyor nearby, smaller packages are automatically scanned, weighed, and routed to pickup points for the carrier that will take them most economically to places from Cedar City, Utah, to Accra, Ghana.
This is the Salt Lake Distribution Center, filling orders for curriculum materials each day from Church units or members around the world.
While 46 additional distribution centers are located throughout the world, the Salt Lake facility plays a central role in distributing curriculum and gospel support materials. But computerization has made some of the other centers part of a new, less centralized network. Managers in many parts of the world can now log on to their computers to see what is in inventory in Salt Lake City and in many other centers.
Sometimes Salt Lake City imports materials from the other distribution centers—curriculum materials in Asian and some European languages, for example, that are produced in those areas.
The volume of materials shipped from the center in Salt Lake City has increased with Church growth. In 1991 the center shipped nearly 802,000 orders. Ten years later, it shipped some 1.74 million orders. The volume by weight increases dramatically toward the end of the year, when annual curriculum orders from wards and branches are being filled.
In addition to books of scripture and curriculum items, the Salt Lake center is responsible for shipping temple garments and clothing from the nearby Beehive Clothing plants to distribution centers in many areas. These clothing shipments make up one-third of the volume.
It would be impossible, says Kris T. Christensen, director of the Church’s Distribution Services Division, to handle this volume without automation and other innovations in shipping. For example, packages bound for a country with a highly efficient postal system may be consolidated into a single shipment, then separated again by a freight forwarder in that country and put directly into the local mail system, thus avoiding unnecessary handling by the area’s distribution center.
Automation in the Salt Lake Distribution Center has also accelerated the mailing of microfilms to family history centers. Another set of computer-controlled cranes retrieves reels of film from a high-density storage area that can hold up to one million reels. The facility can ship up to 4,500 reels a day and reshelve an equal number of returned films.
The technology that speeds the shipping of Church materials has been acquired from industry, where it was developed to streamline shipping of products such as hair spray or auto parts to waiting retailers. Perhaps its inventors never envisioned a spiritual role for this machinery, but now their work is helping to fulfill the commandment to “send forth my word unto the ends of the earth” (D&C 112:4).