Selecting suitable Supply Chain processes for Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

What is Robotics Process Automation (RPA) ?

When we talk about robotics, we are generally more fixated with robots that have hardware components as well (like those gian robotic arms on Manufacturing floors). However, a massive segment of  automation is Robotics Process automation.

Remember that true Robotic process automation is a software robot. You won’t actually see a physical machine with arms, legs, and wheels. With the help of a software program, a robot trainer records keystrokes and mouse clicks. These actions are replayed by a computer (the robot) to mimic the actions of a human. Given the right processes, a trained robot can mimic the same function as its human counterpart. By doing so, the robot can perform repetitive tasks, freeing up the human to take on more value-added work.

Characteristics of a “Good fit” process

The ideal process for RPA is one that has the following characteristics:

  • No abstract decision making: The robot is going to do exactly what you tell it to do. Therefore, whatever process that you decide to automate, it’s got to work the same way over and over again.

 

  • Requires no human intervention: The moment that you need a human to perform steps within the process, chances are, you won’t be able to automate it fully (you can implement something called asisted automation though).

 

  • Repeatable: The robot is going to take the same series of steps each time it runs. Given the same inputs, the process will deliver the same outputs. While you can put a certain amount of rules into the flow, the results have to be predictable and repeatable for the robot to function correctly.

 

  • Takes up a considerable amount of time to run manually: Getting the robot to run a process that takes five minutes to complete daily equates to more time savings than that of a process that takes five minutes to run annually. Go for the processes that yield higher time savings.

 

  • Interacts with systems that do not get updated unexpectedly: One of the greatest strengths of robots is their ability to work with most applications, even legacy types. They can read screens, write to text boxes, and click most types of buttons. However, the training the robot receives to perform these actions is only good if the screen that it was trained to understand does not change.

 

  • Requires accuracy, especially when performing data-entry: Humans tend to make typos when keying data. Robots will not make these types of mistakes, and therefore can be trusted with processes that require a high level of accuracy in data-entry.

 

  • Timeliness is important: Robots can be tasked to look for emails or read a database 24×7. That means the moment an order comes in, even in the wee hours of the night, the robot can process it rather than waiting for a human to report to work the next day to do the job.

As with any project, employing a robot to take over a human process has various other soft points to consider, in addition to the ones above. For example, the willingness of the process owner to embrace change, budget and funding, whether or not the bosses are all aligned with the vision, and so on. Or you might just dive into automating the simplest process first, even if at first it doesn’t give the biggest savings. At the end of the day, robots will keep the savings going and going. As long as the process is relevant, and the robot is working, the numbers will keep adding up. The work and value that the robot gives back to the organization will grow cumulatively.

RPA opportunities in Supply Chains

Robotic process automation provides significant benefits for the supply chain:

  • Supply chain stakeholders can adapt to demand and scale up operations more quickly due to automated processes.
  • Organizations can reduce administrative overhead, resulting in lower staffing costs.
  • Businesses in the supply chain can shift their staff away from low-value, repeatable tasks towards value-added activities that generate revenue and drive other improvements.
  • RPA can eliminate human error and duplication in the supply chain, resulting in less rework, higher quality outputs and more streamlined processes.
  • Retailers can get stock delivered faster due to earlier identification of inventory needs that translates into timely purchase orders throughout the supply chain.

Few Examples

Automate Shipment Scheduling and Tracking

Automate manual shipping tasks — from the initial pick-up request to checking and reporting shipment status between internal systems and portals. RPA can extract shipment details from incoming emails, log jobs in your scheduling systems and provide pick-up times in customer/carrier portals, all with robots.

Eliminate Manual Processes for Capturing Loads and Rate Look-Ups

Automatically perform rate look-ups from multimodal carriers and 3PLs. Eliminate manually copying data from load boards and emails into internal systems and then copying it back into B2B portals to report shipment status.

Speed Invoicing by Integrating Systems with Customer Portals

Eliminate re-keying, cutting-and-pasting and manually attaching data to invoices. Automatically extract shipping data, attach scanned purchase orders and invoices, and update customer portals in seconds, rather than days.

Enhance Customer Responsiveness with Automated Order/Inventory Tracking

Leverage software robots to regularly query carrier tracking systems/websites and retrieve proof of delivery information. Link the data to the original order record in your warehouse management system for better tracking and faster responses to customer inquiries.

Gain Insights to Improve Forecasting and Logistics Planning

Obtain better information to create new opportunities, innovate supply chain processes and achieve greater financial success. Leverage information in near real-time to adjust demand forecasting and logistics planning. Identify trends and patterns in supply and demand, weather conditions, and how those trends impact delivery.

Bill of Materials

One of the most important artifacts in the manufacturing process is the Bill of Materials (BoM). It includes the various raw materials, components, and sub-components that go into the manufacturing of a specific product. These documents/artifacts are necessary so employees know which items to purchase, how much to purchase, and when to purchase these resources.

If an error occurs in interpreting the BoM, the cost to the manufacturer could be substantial. RPA can assist in the BoM process by enabling manufacturing companies to:

  • eliminate spreadsheets to manage BoM systems and reduce the need for paper
  • set up automatic alerts for changes in the system for digitized communication
  • strengthen supply chain procedures
  • enhance regulatory compliance
  • access real-time process monitoring and analytics

Quantifying the value

If you are looking for that perfect process to automate, you would typically start with a chat with the business users to take an inventory of all the processes that they currently own. List them in a spreadsheet, and put down all the key considerations in a weighted list. There will probably be a shortlist of potentials, and there will likely be several discussions with the user on which process provides the greatest automation value.

To help, you might have a spreadsheet that records the steps in each manual process, and the time taken to execute each step as shown in the following diagram. If we add the estimated time to complete the task of searching the item, purchasing the item, tracking the package, and receiving it—the weekly purchase of indirect commodity items in this example takes around minutes per year of  time:

Capture

The total amount of timed saved per year for each process is then collated into a master spreadsheet. Note that this worksheet will be much more complex since you will assign current resources with these tasks as well and one resource could be performing multiple processes.

This entire process of  quantifying total savings can be automated as well

From the consolidated list, you will get a better idea of which processes to shortlist as candidates that will deliver the biggest time savings when automated. In this little demonstration, it appears that the weekly purchase of indirect commodity items would be an ideal candidate for automation.


 

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