Much like outsourcing and offshoring did in the 1990s, robotic process automation (RPA) is disrupting enterprises and creating cost savings, while increasing accuracy and speed. Within the supply chain, RPA has the potential to transform processes that require a lot of data and input points, including purchase and work order management; demand and supply planning; quote, invoice and contract management; returns processing; and freight management.
At its core, RPA is the application of a cost-effective software that mimics human action and connects multiple fragmented systems through automation without changing the current enterprise IT landscape. Software robots enable organizations to automate existing high-volume and complex, multi-step data handling actions as if business users were doing the work.
The current generation of RPA is rules-based and can be easily scaled up and down — a much easier process than hiring and training an army of workers who are needed for only a short period. The software robots capture and interpret existing applications, manipulate data, trigger responses and communicate with other systems. And they can work around the clock and at a much faster pace than humans.
Organizations looking to deploy RPA should identify processes that are complex enough to benefit from simplification, especially those that require data from multiple systems. Once RPA is in use, processes can be improved as shortcuts are identified. For example, because robots follow rules designed by humans and work virtually error-free, certain steps may be able to be eliminated, such as those that require people approving and validating the work of others. In addition to automation, robots can help target system inefficiencies; increase consistency, control and traceability; and improve the overall quality and speed of processes.
In the near future, RPA will move beyond prescriptive processes to become more cognitive. Software robots will be able to learn much as people do, retaining past experience and applying reasoning based on a variety of data points. Further down the line, artificial intelligence will ingest information and instructions, learn from interactions with human beings, and respond to new situations and questions in a human-like way. It will complement rules-based automation by targeting exceptions and offering solutions.
RPA’s benefits can be realized quickly as digital workers reduce workloads and improve efficiency, with cognitive automation and artificial intelligence that can act on massive amounts of data around the corner. Many first movers are realizing more than just cost savings. The reduction in processing time and the ability to perform multiple complex processes in parallel are allowing companies to introduce products and services that were not possible with historically manual and linear processes.
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