Robotic process automation (RPA) is transforming workflows throughout industries specialties, and supply chain is no exception. RPA is a powerful technology that can boost logistics capacity, accuracy, and customer impact — among many other benefits.
Compared to other automation technologies, RPA is relatively easy to implement, and it combines well with other technology efforts, including business process automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI).
Increasing numbers of organisations are leveraging the power of automation within supply chain and supply chain management. Most of the time, RPA is the first step along the process automation journey. Within supply chain, RPA is taking over numerous manual processes, including time-consuming and error-prone manual data entry processes.
It’s also eliminating the need for human interaction on various workflows — the kinds of things where a manager or leader currently must log in, manually toggle a switch or check a box, and then move on.
At a 30,000-foot view, RPA can automate most computer-based processes that don’t require creative human thought. RPA can perform these tasks without error and at scale, working faster than your human team members ever could. Best of all, RPA frees up your creative human employees to do more of what they’re best at: creating and solving complex problems.
Across numerous industries and markets, the challenges within supply chain are fairly consistent. Here are just a few examples:
• Complex, intensely manual processes are slow and ripe for error.
• Various logistics workflows sit for days, even weeks, waiting on manual approvals from someone who’s out of office.
• Different suppliers or procurement channels use differing processes and systems.
• Those systems often can’t talk to one another without intervention.
And we’re only speaking about challenges with the systems and processes of supply chain — the broader, global delays and stresses on supply chain are another matter entirely. Right now, even organisations with strong processes and mature RPA in place face ongoing challenges of getting the right goods to the right locations at the right time. The prospects are dimmer for businesses without effective supply chain management processes.
In addition to the broader challenges facing the industry, there are certain challenges to implementing RPA.
First, automating processes requires standardisation: human staff are quite good at noting and overcoming slight differences in formatting or notation between systems; robots and scripts are not. So to benefit from RPA, organisations must first solve the standardisation issue.
Second, automation must be fully embraced: automating only portions of a process rarely achieves large-scale benefits because that process will still bottleneck or encounter manual errors when it reaches a human’s inbox or to-do list.
While the challenges must be overcome, once an organisation does so, RPA can deliver impressive results throughout supply chain.
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Organisations that fully embrace RPA in supply chain management realise numerous benefits, including these four.
First, as suggested already, implementing RPA is a top method for reducing manual errors in numerous supply chain processes. It’s alarmingly easy for a human to mis-type or misread data, especially when working with numerous repetitive documents. Imagine processing a stack of 50 purchase orders: this task is a significant time commitment for any employee, and the likelihood of making at least one error in an hour or two churning through documents is quite high.
But a well-trained robotic process automation script won’t make a single error (assuming the POs are properly formatted, consistent, and complete).
Not only does RPA reduce errors, it completely transforms capacity. Take that same example of 50 purchase orders. Consider how long that would take an employee in your industry or organisation to complete.
RPA can process all 50 purchase orders in near real-time. It also doesn’t get tired of fatigued, and it never takes a coffee break.
For the right kinds of tasks, and with the proper configuration, RPA can unlock capacity levels for certain business processes that simply aren’t possible otherwise.
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Another strength of RPA is its ability to eliminate process dependencies and the sorts of human delays that most organisations and teams are all too familiar with. When processes, forms, workflows, and the like are subject to manual review and approval, then if any person on the approval list is unavailable (or even just inattentive), that approval gets stuck.
RPA cannot replace every type of approval, but it can eliminate some of them. Some of the elements specific approvers may be checking for may be capable of being automated. Automations can also detect when an approval gets stuck for longer than a specified amount of time or may even recognize when an approver is unavailable and route the deliverable to a designated alternate.
Last, RPA unlocks tremendous data insights when properly implemented. Modern supply chains are more connected than ever before, with IoT sensors embedded into numerous components of every system. Each of these connected devices is a data collection point, meaning that modern businesses have access to unprecedented levels of supply chain data.
Collecting this data and routing it to the proper storage locations is a highly automatable process.
There’s still the matter of turning that collected data into actionable conclusions. RPA alone can’t accomplish this, but it’s a vital tool in the toolkit of those who do.
Consider these real-life use cases where businesses are leveraging RPA to improve outcomes in supply chain.
Order processing and payments are two of the most critical processes within supply chain, and they are great candidates for automation through RPA. Manual invoice creation is a high-likelihood bottleneck point and is susceptible to all the problems that come along with data entry errors.
Automating the invoice and payment process frees employees from manual work, creates visibility into transaction-related trends, and speeds the process of paying and getting paid.
Similarly, data entry is a manual, error-prone task without RPA. But between RPA and business process automation (BPA), a surprising range of data entry tasks can be automated, including scenarios with a greater degree of complexity.
Increasing data entry throughput while simultaneously reducing costly errors is a significant strategic benefit that alone would be justification enough pursuing RPA
Predicting demand and allocating inventory are complex, data-driven processes that even experience supply chain professionals can easily get wrong. RPA can analyse past performance data and make inventory management calculations that are generally very accurate.
A human touch may still be worthwhile as RPA may not properly account for unexpected or current-events disruptions, but RPA can give your professionals a stronger, more data-driven starting place.
Compliance and risk mitigation in procurement are highly manual processes as well, often subject to a stunning number of regulatory requirements. In the case of international trade, multiple trade agreements may also be involved.
Evaluating these compliance and risk factors is a significant time loss. Quite a few of the checks in this evaluation process — such as verifying that certain fields are presented in regulation format — can be automated.
Similar to procurement risk, vendor selection can contain numerous checks and verifications that can eat up time and resources. While keeping humans involved in the vendor selection process is generally wise, RPA can supercharge their abilities to work through due diligence and other repetitive checks.
Another data-heavy and time-consuming process when manually conducted, supply and demand planning is a threat to any scaling business as well as those facing unpredictable trends or dealing with inconsistent customer behaviour. RPA can assist in processing the data behind supply and demand planning.
When used in combination with machine learning and AI tools, RPA can be a powerful force in normalizing demand planning, solving both shortages and surplus.
RPA empowers businesses to automate their customer communication and update order status or details across disparate systems. Other examples of RPA in transportation and logistics management include managing which warehouse supplies product to which customers and automatically selecting the ideal freight method for a shipment.
These use cases are just the tip of the iceberg. For more, read our ultimate RPA guide.
As we’ve seen, the impact is extensive: RPA leveraged in supply chains empowers businesses to scale faster, increase accuracy, free their team members from repetitive, error-prone tasks, and more.
All this information leads to one centrally important question: Is RPA right for your organisation? If supply chain issues are scaling faster than your business — or if you find supply chain to be a frequent limiter to growth or bottleneck — then RPA solutions within supply chain are an ideal solution. To learn more about how Canon Business Services ANZ can transform your supply chain through RPA, reach out to our team today.