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Finding new ways to boost supply chain management efficiency is more critical than it's ever been. Robotic process automation -- or RPA -- is one technology that may help.
RPA can improve supply chain management and logistics by automating repetitive time-consuming tasks such as data entry, in turn improving workflows. RPA uses automated software robots -- or bots -- to extract data from one application and paste it into another.
RPA technology is not as sophisticated or fast as some other integration techniques, but can be easier to implement. It can also facilitate complementary technologies.
"In most cases, RPA is being used in conjunction with other digital levers such as IoT, intelligent document processing, chatbots, mobile applications and even blockchain to reimagine workflows to address bottlenecks and other significant business challenges," said Shirley Hung, vice president at Everest Group, a management consulting and research firm in Dallas.
Here are seven ways companies are weaving RPA into logistics and supply chain workflows.
1. Data entry automation
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.
Take the example of outsourced logistics service provider AM Transport.
The company had built out two infrastructures: one on top of Boomi, a Dell Technologies business, for connecting EDI integrations between its customers and one internal application infrastructure on Salesforce, Google and AWS, said Jason Doris, CTO of AM Transport. Direct API integrations can handle many workflows, but there were gaps that required manual data entry on an ongoing basis, he said.
Doris' team implemented Boomi Flow, an RPA service, to eliminate repetitive tasks from data entry and EDI, and to expand workflow into other areas.
"If one chain of events happens, I can automatically contact customers, notify accounting and submit [bills of lading]," Doris said. "Previously, I would have needed to do all of those tasks separately and manually."
2. Predictive maintenance
Maintaining equipment is an important aspect of supply chain management, and RPA -- working with other technologies -- can help by facilitating predictive maintenance efforts.
As an example, in an oil and gas manufacturing plant, IoT-based predictive maintenance can identify corrosion and pipeline damage, Hung said. These IoT applications then use sensors installed across the pipeline to obtain data on potential for hydrogen and gaseous content. The applications retrieve sensor data in real time and transmit it to the cloud for evaluation, analysis and prediction.
RPA bots act on this information by automating the process of scheduling maintenance, notifying affected customers and updating financial plans, she said. This eliminates delays that would normally be attributed to manual labor, improves response times, reduces employee effort and enhances operational efficiencies.
3. Logistics management
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, Hung said. 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. The bots are capable of automatically assigning a delivery partner based on the location of the products.
RPA bots can also generate notifications to customers if there's a delay, enhancing customer experience with practice and real-time order updates, she said. In essence, the technology improves error handling. RPA is particularly useful in managing cross-border shipments that may require various additional customs, storage and inspections processes that need to be coordinated.
4. After-sales service
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, Hung said. 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.
If a customer needs to make a return, a mobile app for third-party servicing and reverse logistics partners can improve visibility on location, time of arrival and duration to complete work in case of repairs. RPA bots can track orders in real time and send acknowledgement emails to customers automatically.
Shirley HungVice president, Everest Group
"Digitally enabled processes reduce employee effort and time spent in back-end processes, freeing up time to engage with dissatisfied customers," Hung said.
5. Initiating purchase orders
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.
"By automating the process with RPA, the team can ensure there is consistency and reduced likelihood of delays or errors in the process," said Kapil Kalokhe, senior director of business advisory services at Saggezza, a Chicago-based global IT consultancy.
Keeping an efficient supply chain process reduces the risk of lost sales due to shortage of material or stock, ensuring that companies can manage optimal inventory levels. Companies need to be able to manage their supply during peak and trough demand.
Production facilities generate reports on the inventory levels of raw materials, works in process and finished goods. IT can configure an RPA bot to sync with the company's CRM system. Based on the report info, the RPA bot can communicate with the appropriate supplier via email or ordering portal to place an order. The purchasing manager would only need to monitor the notifications and approve the request. In organizations with multiple suppliers and high-volume production, this process can occur hundreds of times per day.
"By including RPA, the time savings would be significant," Kalokhe said.
Using RPA doesn't mean that human oversight is unnecessary, however.
It's also important to create an additional approval process for abnormal activity to avoid ordering too much or misinterpreting rare occurrences, he said.
6. Order management
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.
RPA can streamline these aspects of the order management process, said Prasad Satyavolu, chief digital officer for manufacturing, logistics and energy at utilities at Cognizant, an IT consultancy based in Teaneck, N.J.
RPA can also help bring data together from across multiple data silos, such as organizational management modules, Excel sheets and web portals.
"If an organization has limited ability to aggregate, consolidate and correlate data, decision-making is constrained at best," Satyavolu said.
Front-line workers can call on these RPA bots to perform other repetitive tasks, such as emailing, initiating calls and collating reports.
7. Supply chain diversity
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, said Craig Le Clair, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.
"Business leaders should look to add automation to offer local [supplier] options to supply chains to tighten them and lower costs," Le Clair said.
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.
These same tools can help organize the data from vendor documents, allowing technicians to compare it. RPA bots can also help perform background "due diligence" tasks, such as running credit and compliance checks, to streamline the vendor selection process.
An industrial manufacturer can use a bot to automatically collect and compare sales forecasts, manufacturing capacity and supply data from its vast network of suppliers every month and flag any constraints or discrepancies, said Mark Hermans, managing director at PwC, a U.K.-based networking firm. Other bots can verify new product data to ensure that the bill of materials and other associated parameters are accurate and in sync across engineering, procurement and planning systems. This process uses RPA to validate its supply chain plans.
"These are critically important but often undervalued time sink tasks," Hermans said. "Saving as little as a few minutes per transaction, these kinds of bots can free up valuable time over the course of tens of thousands of iterations enabling planners, buyers and engineers to focus on more rewarding and higher value-add activities."