Spanning the link – Is your supply chain prepared for disruption?

3 Things we can learn from CalMac’s recent linkspan issues

Ferries are an essential component of island life and the majority of visitors to Scotland’s west coast will have seen the purposeful black, white and red ships of Caledonian MacBrayne’s  (Calmac) fleet bustling between their ports. To those that live and work on the islands they are more than just a gateway to adventure – they bring customers, friends and family; take goods to markets; deliver essential parts, supplies and ingredients; and therefore are vital to the economic sustainability of islands’ social and business life.

Image: Oban Times 08/02/19

Image: Oban Times 08/02/19

A modern ferry is a complex piece of equipment, able to operate in most weathers while providing safety and (relative) comfort for its embarked passengers.  Significant infrastructure is also required ashore – Calmac sail to 50 ports along the length of the west coast and its offshore islands. A key component of large roll-on, roll-off ferry infrastructure is the linkspan – a metal ‘bridge’ linked to the shore at one end which is able to adjust to the height of the ferry (depending on the tide) at the other.

On Sunday, 6 October, Scotland’s busiest ferry route between Ardrossan and Brodick was rendered inoperative as a result of the failure of both linkspans at Ardrossan harbour.  A swift response by Calmac looked like it was taken straight from the Business Continuity textbooks – move operations to Troon, only 15 miles by road from Ardrossan and with similarly good transport links for foot passengers.  Crisis averted? Not in this case as the problems were stacking up. Bad weather on Tuesday, 7 October, meant that Troon was no longer able to support operations and the only other alternative port for this route, Gourock, also had a defective linkspan.  All that Calmac could offer is a passenger-only service from Ardrossan – far from ideal during the week of the Scottish school holidays.

Peel Ports operate Ardrossan Harbour and own the Ardrossan linkspans but it is Calmac that will suffer the majority of the reputational and financial impact of the temporary loss of this route.  There are, however, wider implications and lessons to be learned for businesses both on the island and on the mainland as a result of the disruption.

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” – Benjamin Franklin

This, of course, is not the first time that this route has been disrupted and businesses on Arran have experience of the issues that it causes and therefore may be more prepared than most to cope but there are parallels for other areas that have a single point of failure anywhere along their supply chain – that could be loss of a warehouse, failure of a supplier or damage to a road/bridge.

Here are some potential supply chain risks and mitigations that may prepare you for disruptive events:

1. Weather and natural disasters:

Significant weather events are becoming more frequent and their severity is increasing.  The ‘beast from the east’, moorland fires and summer flooding are all in recent memory in the UK and the longer the supply-chain the more susceptible it is to local events along its length.

So what?

A wider supply base allows the ability to flex suppliers to areas less affected by poor weather.  It is also wise to split your routine supply between suppliers to ensure that you don’t suffer a complete loss in a single event.  Having a supplier on ‘standby’ may still lead to delays while they reconfigure their production and leaves you susceptible to competition during a supply chain incident.


Image: Daily Record, Oct 2018

Image: Daily Record, Oct 2018

2. Transport issues:

Lorries crash, roads get blocked, ferries fail.  Transportation of any goods carries risk which can cause delays or loss of product.  

So what?

Vet your transport providers – do they have a business continuity plan?  Are they flexible to adapt to disruptive events – whether that means using smaller lorries that can use an alternative ferry (such as the Lochranza route from Arran) or being able to switch to rail if that’s an alternative? Consider having alternative storage facilities for both raw materials and products to smooth the impact of disruption.


Image: BBC News, Oct 2019

Image: BBC News, Oct 2019

3. Economics and politics:

This can impact the markets of both raw materials and products and can impact anywhere along the chain.  Some issues (eg Brexit) may allow some planning but others (eg the 2008 financial crash) are unexpected.  

So what?

Look at the trends and adapt early.  Take time to ‘horizon scan’ across your industry and beyond and consider how different events might impact your business or that of your key suppliers and markets.  It is impossible to react to everything but keeping an eye open to potential issues may give you a head start.

The disruption on Arran compounds the challenges brought about by a relatively poor summer for an island that relies heavily on tourist income.  Fortunately, this event looks like it will be short-lived and shouldn’t drastically impact the majority of businesses but it serves as a reminder to pay close attention to supply chain risks.  These risks are unlikely to be able to be completely reduced but analysing your supply environment will allow you to stay on top of trends and respond quickly to an issue.  

About the Author:


Stuart Armstrong. AFNI.

Senior Consultant, Inverroy.
Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute.
Sector Lead: Food & Drink

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