The manufacturing industry is inherently complex. Supply chains are geographically diverse. And regulatory requirements continually evolve. What’s more, massive amounts of information exist outside organizational walls and are difficult or impossible to access. Yet many manufacturers still rely on manual and paper-based processes that drain productivity.
The good news is that most manufacturers are keen to explore the path toward automation, moving away from an attitude of “the way we’ve always done it,” and toward the digitally transformed business of tomorrow.
Many have begun to take action. A 2018 Forbes Insights survey found that 48% of manufacturers have taken the crucial early step of inventorying “some” processes, and 46% have already adopted automation software for that purpose.
For many manufacturers, however, the goal of enterprise-wide digital transformation can seem more like a pipe dream than a possibility. Common barriers to adopting automation software, according to the Forbes Insight survey, include a lack of skillset (27%), unconvinced of ROI (33%), belief that it’s cost-prohibitive (42%), assertion that current processes aren’t broken (22%), and lack of buy-in from senior leadership (27%).
So while the power of automation to transform operations is very real, any plan requires taking an honest look at the business’s status quo, to gain a solid understanding of the market and the best path for navigating the journey.
Manufacturing is a document-driven market, so it’s not surprising that many operations are still mired to some extent in paper and other manual processes. In fact, 9% of manufacturers surveyed reported that they manually process all tasks, and 31% said they can automate small tasks but rely on humans to string such tasks together and check at every stage. Less than a third reported that they could automate multiple tasks together, with a human intervening only in the case of exceptions. Clearly, progress is being made, but there’s still a way to go.
The sheer number of documents referencing the production, trade, transportation, development and eventual disposal of goods has exploded over the past two decades. Globalization has added to these pressures, as companies have had to adhere to standards from different countries. The effects of these regulations are particularly visible along the supply chain. Documents such as letters of consignment, import lists, export declarations, delivery notes, carnets and certificates of origin must be delivered at predetermined points in time, either along with the goods or prior to their arrival.
At the same time, many manufacturers are still made up of “islands” of information. Production sites, branch offices, departments and business units often don’t share documents and data efficiently. Since not all employees are able to work with the right information at the right time, inefficient and error-prone processing is the result.
The right process workflow shouldn’t contribute to bottlenecks. It should eliminate them, and help forge a path between people and the information they need to manage day-to-day operations. An automation solution should make data work for a business.
For manufacturers, automation can encompass core and peripheral functions across the organization for any business process, including supply and demand planning; order processing; pricing and procurement; inventory tracking and processing; contract monitoring; invoice, quote and contract management; customer support and communication, and regulatory compliance.
The employee-customer connection is also significant. Automation empowers workers, who are freed from tedious manual tasks so they can focus on higher-value, customer-oriented work.
A significant number of manufacturers surveyed said employee satisfaction improved due to automation: 31% reported improvement of between 5% and 15%, 26% reported improvement of between 15% and 25%, and 25% reported improvement of 25% or more.
Many saw similar results with respect to customer satisfaction: 30% reported improvement of between 5% and 15%, 35% reported improvement of between 15% and 25%, and 17% reported improvement of 25% or more.
When asked about cost reductions due to automation, 42% of manufacturers reported improvements in the range of 5%-15%, 32% reported improvements of 15%-25%, and 11% reported improvements of 25% or more. When asked about revenue generation, 37% reported improvements of 5%-15%, 31% reported improvements of 15%-25%, and 15% reported improvements of 25% or more.
Automation drives smarter business, and the ability to maximize and extend the scope and degree to which processes can be optimized is redefining how organizations can be competitive in the market, and increase satisfaction among employees and customers.
Harnessing the full power of automation to work like the digitally transformed organization of the future requires a seamless blend of knowledge workers and “smart” automation capabilities. The goal is to create agile workforces that enhance partner relationships, improve margins, enhance regulatory compliance, and increase the quality and accuracy of outputs, while driving out cost.
Many manufacturers begin the digital transformation journey with robotic process automation (RPA), technology that uses software robots to automate repetitive tasks and manual processes, and augment the employee workforce. And while companies implementing only RPA for this purpose are realizing significant benefits, many are thinking beyond the technology. In fact, 60% of manufacturers reported that their automation initiative was enterprise-wide.
A true enterprise automation solution requires seamless interoperability of RPA and capabilities such as cognitive capture, process orchestration, advanced analytics, and mobility and customer engagement. It all adds up to intelligent automation. IA allows organizations to realize the full value and return on investment that RPA promises, by aggregating complementary technologies to manage teams of software bots, and scale them to the enterprise. Organizations can start, scale or expand their intelligent digital workforces on their terms and timelines.
With an IA platform, customers can converge digital and physical workforces into a collaboratively run machine. Benefits include enhanced service levels, reduced operational costs and increased productivity, without adding headcount.
A workforce consisting of both humans and robots can transform the capacity and performance of business operations, and enable manufacturers to work like tomorrow, today.
Chris Huff is chief strategy officer with Kofax, a provider of process-automation software.