Is Robotic Process Automation the Optimal Route to the Supply Chain Dream?

Can machine learning in combination with robotics transform logistics? By Guy Kirkwood, chief evangelist, UiPath

Manufacturing, logistics and transport businesses have long dreamed of rolling out the perfect supply chain operation, systems and strategies. While some aspects are a challenge, and out of our control, we should not be dissuaded from continually assessing and looking to improve the systems and processes that (literally) keep the wheels turning. 

As consumer appetite for eCommerce continues to scale, industries are under immense pressure to ship orders in the most timely and efficient manner. While providing the fastest possible delivery was once viewed as the ultimate benefit for demanding consumers, the benchmark has quickly shifted to precision, not just speed – allowing consumers to receive orders at specific times and dates and to track the end-to-end journey, including the ability to provide alternative delivery instructions during the last mile.

An arms race to adapt the supply chain is being waged using automation and machine learning as its ammunition. While machine learning may not be new to the industry, recent advances in AI and its increased capabilities when combined with automation make it an attractive asset that genuinely benefits organisations.

Automation streamlines repetitive rules-based business processes, but the software is largely unable to deal with exceptions on its own or make decisions outside of how it has been programmed. However, automation combined with AI can handle tasks that require more complex decision-making and analysis, such as natural language processing, recommendation services and online customer support.

Analysing and securing data faster and more accurately, AI-enabled automation delivers cost-savings, improved productivity and compliance quickly, and streamlines the flow of goods from warehouse to customer.


The Rise of Robotic Process Automation

Robotic Process Automation’s (RPA) ability to deliver positive outcomes has grown in line with advances in artificial intelligence to the point where significant and increasing numbers of companies across the industry are now implementing RPA. Global research firm ISG has revealed that by next year 72 per cent of companies are expected to be using RPA.

RPA implementation easily simplifies complex supply chains through the ability to handle skill-based, non-standardised interactions which previously depended on human intervention. It can balance supply and demand to spot trends and act appropriately in terms of servicing, selecting, picking and transporting products, using data from vendors, customers, logistics partners as well as market intelligence, production and sales teams. For example, it can analyse data within the business to assess when and where transport slots should be offered.

Other examples where RPA can help include crunching a wide range of supply-side statistics from potential vendors to assess them based on a set of procurement rules, thereby identifying the best third-party partners. It can also deliver predictive maintenance, learning from past actions, results and mistakes to collate a 360-degree view of what needs to be done and how it is best achieved. This last example pays dividends by recognising when deliveries are suddenly delayed at the depot or in transit, or by identifying a sudden surge in specific complaints. 

However, RPA can only be successful with the right human intervention at the outset, with a deep understanding of the processes to be automated and with the correct rules and boundaries in place. This is why leveraging automation at scale should come with clear governance, an understanding of what it means for the roles of current employees, and the ability to filter out inherent bias which may have been embedded into the technology by its original human creators.


A Threat to the Human Workforce?

It is natural for workers to be worried about of the rise of machines which can accomplish human tasks. However, use case after use case has proved this to be a concern without validity. Indeed, the automation of mundane, process-driven tasks elevates the work done by humans. With skilled workers retrained, these individuals are frequently tasked with developing new automation technologies and managing the implementation of these technologies within their own business environment. This leads to happier employees, higher productivity and the generation of more, not fewer, jobs.  

RPA is still a relatively new technology, and it continues to evolve. There is no doubt that its capabilities are only set to get stronger and it will have a greater impact on the supply chain, reducing risks and errors and streamlining operations. Taking the steps to implement RPA can mean value for today, as well as for the future if done well. The secret is to ensure RPA complements an organisation, adds value to human efforts, and thus improves the customer experience.

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