This article discusses how robotic process automation (RPA) is a logical next step in a decades-long tradition of digital automation, and how it is a great way to quickly and effectively accelerate key supply chain functions, including partner onboarding, sales order generation, and order tracking.
Organizations of all sizes are turning to RPA to jump-start their path towards widespread automation of their business processes, and reading this article will provide you with reasons to consider adopting the same approach.
RPA: Quick-fire deployment meets astonishing efficiency
Digital process automation has been a mainstay of information technology service providers for half a century. Reducing human effort and increasing their client organizations’ capacity to process information is a major aspect of the value that the IT industry provides. Until recently, however, prohibitively high initial costs, long implementation cycles, and complications associated with solution reconfiguration have prevented all but the largest organizations from pursuing the massive advantages that automation provides.
RPA has changed the automation game by addressing all of these concerns. Instead of hiring a large team of consultants and developers to assess and automate your business functions over the course of months or years, RPA produces the same results in just a few weeks with considerably less investment. Using RPA, some relatively simple jobs can take as little as a few hours to automate.
Setting up RPA is simple. You start by identifying time-consuming, repetitive digital tasks performed by your staff, like copying and pasting text between windows, sending documents or boilerplate text via email, performing searches, submitting and verifying records, or comparing new and old documents. You then “train” a virtual software agent (usually called a “robot” or “bot”) to perform the same series of clicks, keystrokes, and comparisons via user-friendly software – little to no understanding of advanced programming required. Once trained, bots step in and free your human workers from each of these boring tasks, allowing them to make better use of their many uniquely human talents.
What happens when your evolving business objectives necessitate changes in your operating procedures? Do you have to buy new bots?
Nope! Instead of having to buy more software or begin a multi-year software development project, all you have to do is retrain the bot using the same software you used to train it the first time. After showing your bot where to click and what to type, it’s ready to handle a completely new series of digital tasks. This offers much better value than a custom-made, single-purpose solution that automates a very particular series of steps and nothing else.
How bots create a superhuman supply chain
Pick virtually any digital task in your organization, from employee onboarding and payroll to sales order fulfillment and invoicing. RPA allows those processes to hum along around the clock with minimal human input – the people that used to complete those tasks usually spend a tiny part of their workday addressing the few exceptions that your bots might not have been trained to handle.
You might find this surprising, but using a bot for these kinds of processes typically results in a five to fifteen-fold increase in efficiency! That’s right: if a human takes fifteen minutes to process an order, a bot takes just one. If a human takes one minute, a bot takes just four seconds. Don’t you think that’s worth a few weeks of effort and a modest investment?
Let’s consider three specific supply chain processes that can easily be reassigned to bots: partner onboarding, sales order creation, and order tracking.
Suppose you want to set up communication with a new trading partner. You’ll need to process contracts and government forms (like the W-9 form in the US), verify that all initial requirements are met, and then keep track of each document. Each partner might have a different format for data transmission, as well as a different set of business rules that need to be followed. Each of these steps can take several minutes for a human worker to accomplish, but a bot can handle these tasks in a fraction of that time with little to no human intervention.
Granted, some onboarding tasks require a set of human eyes. For example, a human decision maker needs to review and sign off on each vendor contract. Bots can still improve efficiency by creating an automated approval workflow. As soon as your organization receives the appropriate vendor paperwork, the bot performs a basic evaluation and notifies the appropriate personnel to approve or reject the contract. Depending on those people’s responses, the bot either proceeds with onboarding or notifies all relevant stakeholders about issues that need to be addressed before onboarding can continue.
Sales Order Creation
Many organizations receive purchase orders via email (or even fax!) and require team members to manually create corresponding sales orders. Not only does this take a considerable amount of time, but performing these manual steps also increases the risk of introducing errors, which would require rework and might even lead to loss of business.
Using bots to handle these boring, mechanical, “copy-paste” tasks virtually eliminates processing errors and allows you to accelerate order fulfillment and take on more business each day. You can even use RPA to generate real-time reports and analytics on sales performance, instead of spending hours manually compiling daily or weekly reports.
Instead of spending your time manually creating shipping schedules and packing slips based on order requests, you can use bots to perform these mundane tasks nearly instantly. When your orders ship, these bots can also save you the hassle of using a separate transportation management system or your logistics partner’s web portal to track each package.
Even though B2B web portals are a major improvement over older methods of shipment tracking, they still require you to fire up your web browser, navigate to the web portal, and copy and paste (or re-key) information from your ERP system into the appropriate form fields. Instead, a bot can take care of this entire series of steps in moments and give you the real-time status of each package you have in transit.
RPA is on its way to becoming the dominant means of digital transformation for businesses of any size, across all industry verticals. In addition to HR, accounts, invoicing, and other standard processes shared by all businesses, RPA is also the perfect tool for collapsing time-consuming sequences of industry-specific digital tasks into bot-run routines that run so flawlessly that they fade into the background.
By applying RPA to supply chain tasks, most organizations will experience massive increases in order throughput, reductions in shipping delays, and far fewer order fulfillment errors. Better yet, cutting-edge “smart” bots provide even higher long-term value by using machine learning to improve their own performance over time.
With shockingly modest time, effort, and monetary investment required, implementing an RPA solution should be at the top of your to-do list. For more information on the types of business functions that can be automated using bots, please contact Visionet Systems.