Technology is a driving force behind operational innovation and is rapidly altering how companies do business. Faced with growing pricing pressure as customers demand more for less and more quickly, supply chain professionals are seeking new solutions to optimize operations and retain their competitive edge.
Recognized by many industry experts as the next step in automation, robotic process automation (RPA) is revolutionizing process efficiency and productivity. Many manufacturing, transportation and logistics companies are implementing it to improve efficiency and reduce costs.
How it works
Using machine learning to imitate user actions, RPA can execute decisions that streamline workflow. To put it in simpler terms, RPA learns on the job to mimic how employees carry out a task, and then automates it. This means that robots can manage the routine and laborious tasks to allow human workers to advance more value-added capabilities. As a result, the key to selecting the right RPA initiative is to pinpoint where employee involvement delivers the most value and where RPA could step in to release staff time.
One process that is considered time-consuming and repetitive is manually entering data from transactional documents such as sales orders, invoices or bills of lading. It is a back-office task that causes inefficiencies throughout the supply chain and, therefore, is primed for automation. This an ideal example of a smaller-scale initiative to test RPA.
Optimizing such seemingly unimportant and mundane processes can create positive impacts across an organization’s workflow and bottom line:
Eliminating bottlenecks. Time is of the essence in distribution. With so many repetitive tasks demanding employee attention, the amount of time left for them to complete revenue-generating duties is perilously low. In addition, routine tasks are susceptible to human error, which can seriously affect the bottom line. Adopting the more physical roles and automating labor-intensive tasks with precision, accuracy and speed, RPA positions supply chains to gain the greatest possible ROI.
Delivering business insight. Understanding customer habits is key to building long-term relationships and enables distributors to provide value-added services and products tailored to buyer needs. RPA can rapidly collect and analyze enormous sets of data. With this insight, decision-makers can then pinpoint patterns and trends that enable strategic planning and forecasting. For instance, a hardware distributor may find that a certain customer buys a bulk number of power tools every year around the same time. It can then offer tailored incentives to increase the customer’s order or cross-sell complementary items, such as safety gear, when the customer is most likely to be interested in the products. In this way, distributors are able to personalize their interactions with each customer and expand value-added services.
Securing scalability. Every supply chain faces peaks and quiet periods. While seasonal staff can assist when demand is high, their recruitment is expensive, especially considering the lost investment in training when they leave. This makes scaling staff for shifting demands a significant and costly challenge. For example, an HVAC distributor most likely will experience peak sales season in summer months, creating a need for more staff to process incoming purchase orders. RPA can scale up to handle the increased workload, while maintaining consistent quality and output without hiring additional employees.
Change your focus
Integrating RPA ultimately drives significant, quantifiable ROI that can positively influence every stage of the supply chain. While large-scale undertakings exist to optimize revenue-generating processes, smaller, back-office initiatives can deliver exceptional and sustainable results that boost company productivity, reduce operating costs and maximize a distributor’s ability to create value for its customers.
Earl van As is vice president of marketing and product management at ecmarket, developer of Conexiom. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.