Robotic Process Automation in the Supply Chain

Stephen DeAngelis

February 11, 2021

Recent studies have shown organizations are beginning to invest in robotic process automation (RPA) technologies for a wide variety of processes. If you are unfamiliar with the technology, journalist Janet Brice explains, “RPA, also known as ‘smart automation’ or ‘intelligent automation,’ is an umbrella term for advanced software systems that are programmed to perform tasks that previously required human intervention. Other robotic solutions incorporate machine learning and include cognitive computing and artificial intelligence.”[1] Actually, Brice may be getting ahead of herself. In its most basic form, RPA isn’t smart at all; however, many analysts consider it a gateway to more advanced cognitive technologies.

“At its most basic,” explains Tim Kulp (@tim_kulp), Chief Innovation Officer at Mind Over Machines, “RPA is programming digital assistants (aka bots) to use technology the same way people do. It mimics how humans work to connect disparate business applications. Running over top of existing infrastructure and systems, a bot copies data from one source and pastes it into another. When people do this type of work, we often refer to it as ‘swivel-chair operations.’ Whether you use human or bot labor you are avoiding the expense of upgrading or replatforming technology.”[2] He adds, “The goal of RPA is to free your human employees from data-entry drudgery. Robots can do this work faster and with much more accuracy. People were never meant to mindlessly input data. We are far better suited to critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.” Most people think of RPA in association with back office work; however, supply chain professionals are showing increasing interest in the technology.

RPA in the supply chain

Oliver Freeman, former Senior Editor at Supply Chain Digital, observes, “Robotics and robotic process automation aren’t ‘new kids on the block’ anymore, when it comes to global supply chain operations; [however], the concept of complete process automation and data integration still eludes most.”[3] Even so, he notes, RPA can improve supply chain operations in a number of ways:

  • It eliminates the manual input of purchase orders and other administrative tasks.
  • Subsequently eliminates human error from the process.
  • RPA responds to requests for proposals, quotes, and questions through innovative AI.
  • Increases Return on Investment (ROI).
  • The system provides 24/7, 365, engagement across supply chain networks.
  • Automates B2B processes that would cost more if conducted manually.
  • RPA automates with other leading software and tools.
  • Through data analytics, RPA can identify and optimize current inefficiencies across the chain.

Journalist George Lawton (@glawton) writes, “Finding new ways to boost supply chain management efficiency is more critical than it’s ever been. Robotic process automation is one technology that may help.”[4] Talking about RPA in general terms is a good place to start; however, getting down to specifics can be even more helpful. To that end, Lawton details seven use cases for RPA in supply chain and logistics operations. They are:

1. Data entry automation. This is the classic use of RPA. Lawton notes, “Lack of integration is a critical issue for almost every business involved in shipping goods, and RPA software can help close some of the gaps.”

2. Predictive maintenance. This is where you start getting into what Brice called intelligent automation. At Enterra Solutions®, we call this Cognitive Process Automation™ (CPA). As Lawton notes, “Maintaining equipment is an important aspect of supply chain management, and RPA — working with other technologies — can help by facilitating predictive maintenance efforts.” Those “other technologies” include cognitive computing with embedded advanced analytics.

3. Logistics management. According to Lawton, “RPA can bring efficiencies to the delivery phase of the supply chain. In these cases, RPA bots monitor orders and update the order handover details across all relevant systems. … They can also work in conjunction with AI-based intelligent routing systems that coordinate between multiple logistics partners, such as road freight, cargo ships and air freight.”

4. After-sales service. After-sales service is critical for maintaining customer loyalty and enhancing corporate reputation. As Lawton observes, “What happens after a sale is becoming increasingly important, and RPA can work with several other technologies to improve that aspect of supply chain management. For example, when a customer places a service request using a mobile app, an intelligent virtual assistant or chatbot can interact with customers and then place requests in the system. … Intelligent document processing applications can read data from various service request document formats and then coordinate with RPA bots to capture and maintain service ticket data.”

5. Initiating purchase orders. According to Lawton, “Organizations’ supply chain departments can use an RPA bot to check inventory levels and initiate a purchase order when supply levels dip below a specified threshold. Most companies have a purchase order template or online ordering process set up with their vendors, and the structured nature of purchase order information lends itself to automation.”

6. Order management. Lawton asserts, “Automations for routine and repetitive manual tasks, such as load matching with transport availability and order management, can be difficult to implement directly into the existing ERP. Robotic process automation technology can make this easier to accomplish.”

7. Supply chain resilience. Lawton insists, “RPA can help companies build a more resilient supply chain in the wake of COVID-19 by bringing automation to supplier relationships. Business leaders should develop a resilience automation strike team and a roadmap to scale up any processes using automation, which makes them more resilient. … When companies combine RPA software with machine learning, it can gather data from vendors and customers, run simulations and analyze alternatives. This improves supply chain diversity. Intelligent automation layers AI on top of RPA and can help prepare a request for quotation package and allow access to a wider set of vendors.”

As you can see from Lawton’s list, many of the use cases he lists require more than just RPA. Analysts from ShipChain make this amply clear. They write, “Cognitive automation and robotic process automation are not the same, even though they are often confused for one another.”[5] They add, “Cognitive automation is a form of RPA with added capabilities to mimic human thought and action through different technological algorithms. Cognitive automation can manage and analyze large volumes of data and operations much more quickly and accurately than humans, meaning that in some ways, it can be a better choice than having human managers. With cognitive automation, machines can sense in a very human way, using cognitive technologies like ‘natural language processing, image processing, pattern recognition, and — most importantly — contextual analyses to make more intuitive leaps, perceptions, and judgments’ as per Manish Rai at Automation Anywhere. In other words, cognitive automation analyzes aggregate data to identify patterns and trends.” As Lawton’s list of use cases makes clear, cognitive automation can be very useful.

Concluding thoughts

ShipChain analysts believe organizations are striving to achieve self-driving supply chains and that cognitive automation is an essential step towards that goal. Kulp, however, believes self-driving supply chains may be a step too far. He explains, “If you have legacy systems and high-volume, repetitive tasks, RPA can probably save you time and money. But there are some things you should never automate. Chief among them is your core competency, the thing your company does better than anyone else. Automation should augment your human workforce, not replace it. RPA liberates your employees from monotony so they can build the value that makes you unique in the marketplace.” I suspect supply chains will eventually become much more automated; however, I agree with Kulp that the human touch will still be required to make things run smoothly.

Footnotes
[1] Janet Brice, “Gartner: Robotic process automation (RPA) is a game changer,” Business Chief, 20 October 2020.
[2] Tim Kulp, “Robotic Process Automation 101,” KM World, 29 December 2020.
[3] Oliver Freeman, “How RPA is Revolutionising Supply Chain Networks,” Supply Chain Digital, 12 January 2021.
[4] George Lawton, “7 use cases for RPA in supply chain and logistics,” TechTarget, 10 June 2020.
[5] Staff, “Cognitive Automation and How it Could Transform the Logistics Industry,” ShipChain, 19 August 2020.