Why flexibility is so important in the logistics industry

Calum Arnison
Calum Arnison is Contract Manager (Nippon) with road tanker logistics firm Suttons Tankers.

Calum Arnison of Suttons Tankers writes about what it actually takes to ensure products get shipped on time

Logistics services need to adapt skilffully to address seasonal requirements for different products. One obvious example is food and drink over the festive period. When it comes to making sure you get your turkey and mince pies on time, a flexible supply chain model is fundamental.

And there are plenty of other products requiring a flexible logistics solution, particularly in bulk transport.

As a large bulk chemical logistics provider in the UK, Suttons Tankers is part of a huge ecosystem transporting products on a flexible basis with a commitment to ensuring zero disruption to supply chains and everyday life. This includes the transportation of fuel to the emergency services, the bitumen used to maintain the UK’s roads, the gases supplied to the pharmaceutical industry (including the oxygen that keeps hospital patients breathing), and the chemical treatment products used to provide clean drinking water.

Definitions of flexibility vary from customer to sector, but the provision of a flexible supply chain model can be a deal breaker – and should be prioritised when choosing a logistics provider. For some contract customers, it may be an extra shift here or there, while to others it may mean a completely different operational model at a specific time in the year. The last thing a supplier wants is their product standing still due to a haulier being unable to support, potentially leading to a plant shutdown which can have devastating effects on businesses and customers. Similarly, retaining a high cost base outside of peak periods is also unattractive to suppliers.

Flexibility requires experience, innovation, and a proactive orientation from the logistics provider. Having a talented pool of committed drivers who are trained to work on multiple contracts and products is crucial. Suttons is privileged to have an innovative and proactive planning team and can deploy multi-disciplined drivers where required, supporting its customers when they need it most.

The benefits of scale
Size is also important to consider, and a logistics provider with a larger operation will often be more able to work flexibly and to support customers at short notice or where needed. As an example of the larger scale of operation, Suttons Tankers has a fleet of over 500 tractor units and 850 tanks.

Adaptability is also key: a haulier who is flexible and able to consider a diversion from the original plan will be an asset. Increasingly, customers who consider their transport movements as an integrated part of their overall supply chain will be able to work in synchrony with the logistics provider and benefit from the efficiencies that can be accessed.

Having multiple, strategically-located depots makes it easier to be adaptable. Strong inter-depot communication allows planners to liaise as a team and come up with the most efficient solution to serve the customer.

Truck at sunrise

The relevance of shift patterns
What kind of shift patterns can the logistics provider support? This has a bearing on their ability to support an optimal and efficient supply chain model.

At Suttons, for example, a wide variety of different shift patterns are in operation. The four-on-four-off shift pattern allows working hours to be maximised during the working week, and provides broad coverage and flexibility, if and when required. A five-on-three-off pattern gives the driver a rolling shift pattern, providing weekend coverage but also gives the driver a good rest period.

The key benefit of continuous rotating shift patterns is the ability to provide committed resource at weekends which is particularly important for contracts that don’t just operate Monday to Friday. It also supports drivers in maximising rest periods and work-life balance. These shift patterns also provide the customer with a known cost, providing greater clarity when calculating cost per tonne.

Continuous rotating shift patterns mean it is easy to make provision for an additional working shift if there is an appetite for it. Having staggered start times means that a haulier can have a 24/7 operation, with no down-time for the customer. This is possibly the most efficient way to operate.

A trunking operation can maximise efficiencies for the logistics provider and help it fulfill its promise and commitment to its customers. For example, Suttons can deploy its strategic depot locations in a night-trunking operation for one contract, which, in turn, might free up other skilled drivers to work in other parts of the business.

Where there are activities that require specially trained drivers, often there is a restriction on the level of flexibility that can be provided. Trunking can be used to overcome this by concentrating the specially trained drivers at the loading or delivery areas, allowing for other drivers to trunk between strategic depots as a means of increasing resource levels on the operation.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that, while having the correct equipment and being placed in the right location is crucial, if this was all logistics providers offered then they wouldn’t get very far. Without the commitment and versatility of a talented driver workforce, customers could only have very modest expectations of service, and would be somewhat limited in the degree to which their hauliers would be able to flex up when required.

A flexible logistics model is crucial to providing customers with the best service possible, and to avoiding any disruption to the supply of life’s essentials. It can be achieved by committing to provide the highest level of training to a large workforce of drivers, and it greatly helps to have a large fleet on hand, with strategically located depots. It doesn’t hurt to invest in a cohort of forward-thinking planners who put the customers’ needs at the forefront of the job. Such capabilities should be kept in mind when selecting a logistics provider.