Back-Office Bots Expand Factory Automation

Robotic process automation can lead to important digital transformation in manufacturing operations

For decades, manufacturing has led industry’s charge to automate, particularly on the factory floor. Yet, there are still processes that are carried out on paper and then manually entered into digital systems, as well as systems that can’t share data with each other. Robotic process automation (RPA) can help with both of those issues.

RPA software mimics the activity of humans carrying out tasks. It’s generally used to automate repetitive, rules-based, routine tasks, such as scanning paper bills of lading into an electronic tracking system, or scraping data from websites and entering it into a spreadsheet. Another example of RPA is customer service chatbots, which respond with order status and other routine information when customers ask questions.

For repetitive tasks, RPA offers the possibility of reduced costs, faster and more accurate performance, increased reliability and round-the-clock work. And it has the ability to give companies access to accurate, timely data that they’ve never before had. Often, these solutions require relatively minimal setup by IT, which can lead to speedier implementation.

One of RPA’s greatest areas of potential in manufacturing is as a way to share data between multiple systems. For instance, it can help factory floor systems speak to back office systems, or feed reporting from legacy systems into newer systems for financial analysis, operations analysis, inventory management and more. RPA is sometimes the only efficient way to move large amounts of data between disparate systems, with bots entering data from the old system into the new system.

By increasing the speed at which data can be digitized and shared, as well as bridging multiple systems, RPA opens the possibility of using big data to glean deeper business insights, inspect operations, improve decision-making and more. This moves RPA into the realm of digital transformation, where technology does more than create efficiencies – it allows companies to use data to drive significant value for customers and the business.

Automate carefully and strategically

Without question, manufacturers will need to consider technologies like RPA in order to stay competitive. But, as with any aspect of digital transformation, organizations must carefully prepare, plan and execute in order to reap the full benefits. The difference between success and failure often comes down to company culture and the strategy behind technology implementations.

For an organization to fully benefit from robotic process automation, it must:

  • Have an overall vision for company goals and strategy
  • Understand how technology can facilitate this vision
  • Create cross-disciplinary technology project teams that bring together different areas and multiple stakeholders
  • Have a learning environment at every level of the company that encourages employees to try new ways of doing things that may not always succeed
  • Encourage employees to try new technology without terrifying them that robots are coming to take their jobs

With this in mind, do not treat RPA implementation as a purely technological process. Planning must involve the staff who are currently performing the process, the managers overseeing it, stakeholders from around the company and technology experts. An important planning-stage question for everyone involved is whether the proposed solution is the most efficient way to move, share or transform data, or just an automation of the way it’s always been done.

All the stakeholders should also consider and plan for governance related to the process and the data. This means reviewing whether the data is accurate as it moves through your systems, and that you’re in compliance with laws, regulations, ethical rules and other considerations.

Beware the trap of instant ROI

Successful use of RPA often requires a significant investment in software licensing, staff training, new employees and/or consultants. There will be a learning curve, most likely errors to fix and tweaks to make. This isn’t usually the kind of technology investment that pays off with a big, showy return on investment (ROI) in six months or a year.

More often than not, RPA is one of many small changes that add up to major transformation, paying off with reduced costs, as well as better access to and ability to use valuable data. Keep in mind that this is true of nearly all technology investments, and it’s a pitfall that any company investing in technology should be aware of. The benefits of new technology tend to come from many incremental technological and cultural changes. Together, they lead to true digital transformation.

Frank Peña, CPA, is a Assurance & Advisory Services Principal at Kaufman Rossin, one of the Top 100 CPA and advisory firms in the U.S.