Identified as a top 2018 supply chain technology trend by Gartner, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has emerged as a useful tool that could potentially lead to more strategic decision-making.1 RPA is a technology application that equips tools with the ability to mimic predictable and repetitive tasks.2 Tools can range from configuration within software to a physical piece of equipment that can capture and interpret various applications.3 Through the use of conditional computer programming, RPA typically uses a combination of user interface (UI) interactions or connections to application programming interfaces (APIs) to drive servers, mainframes, or HTML code. As a top trend in supply chain technology, RPA technologies could be valuable tools to streamline data-driven processes across operations.4
The Rise of RPA
Over the past decade, RPA technology has matured and been applied to automate rule-based business processes across various verticals.5 According to Forrester Research, the RPA market is predicted to grow, reaching $2.9 billion by 2021.6 RPA tools are flexible and can be triggered manually or automatically, at any day or time. When applied correctly, RPA tools led to cost reduction, elimination of keying errors, and improvement in operational speed. Popular applications of RPA include the movement or population of data, documentation of audit trails, conducting calculations, and performing actions and triggers on downstream activities such as inventory management tasks.7
RPA Within Supply Chain
RPA can reduce costs by 50 to 70 percent for high-frequency repeated tasks, however the key to success with implementing RPA is ensuring it is applied to the right processes.8 Recognizing manual tasks within the supply chain such as data matching, audits, and manual entry could be an approach to determine where RPA would fit within an operation. Supply chains are complex, data driven operations,9 and the ability to automate and eliminate potential risk in keying errors could improve overall data integrity. If successful, RPA may contribute to uncovering optimization opportunities more quickly in solutions such as backhauls and cross-docks.
Empowering People with RPA
Gartner estimates that by 2020, automation and artificial intelligence will reduce employee requirements in businesses’ shared-service centers by 65 percent.10 However, this does not mean that personnel should be replaced with RPA technologies; instead these tools could enhance the ability for employees to be more strategic in areas such as supply chain planning.11 Although RPA may shift focus for some employees, it’s important for those considering investing in RPA technology to know that professionals are used to implement, sustain, and support these tools.12
The purpose of RPA is to reduce risk for errors, improve speed, and ideally minimize unnecessary costs. Supply chain professionals interested in RPA can take a look at areas where tasks are repetitive and discover opportunities to apply these technologies. With the appropriate processes identified, RPA can be a valuable tool in evolving supply chains.