Manufacturers in several different industries are already using physical robots to assemble, test, and package their products. Despite the improvements these robots have made in streamlining the assembly line, the manufacturing industry continues to face significant issues when it comes to automating back-office and operational processes. These include problems in keeping up with new regulations and finding skilled labor, as well as issues surrounding inventory management, procurement, and customer communications.
The good news is that robotic process automation (RPA) is beginning to have an impact on many of these problem areas as more and more manufacturers automate processes ranging from accounts receivable and accounts payable to invoice processing and purchase order management.
Doing so has helped to increase manufacturer efficiency, reduce manual errors, and save time, leading to a more agile back-office, more streamlined operations, and up to a 20 percent cost savings across the board. RPA has also helped manufacturers to improve levels of regulatory compliance, produce real-time process monitoring and analytics, replace paper with digital platforms, and digitize communications.
Despite the obvious benefits, some manufacturers are still hesitant to make the jump to RPA. Their reluctance is due, in large part, to their concerns about introducing potential risks that could threaten stable processes and frustrate both customers and employees.
To help minimize any risks associated with shifting to RPA while still reaping its substantial benefits, manufacturers should consider six key steps.
- Go slowly: Excited by the potential benefits of RPA, many manufacturers are tempted to jump into the deep end by introducing the new technology to multiple processes at once. Doing so could negatively impact the regular flow of data and products, resulting in supply chain interruptions and employee unrest. Manufacturers would be better served to start slowly. Begin by researching and identifying which processes would benefit most from RPA, then implement and make sure these processes are running smoothly before moving on to the next implementation.
- Keep it simple: Initially, manufacturers should plan for RPA to handle typical, routine information flow. Simultaneously, they should build in steps to eliminate exceptions. More complex rules and exceptions can be added later as employees become more familiar and comfortable with the new processes. At the start, it’s best to keep things simple.
- Put together some early wins: Recognize that some level of disruption is inevitable. Manufacturers should introduce RPA by initially focusing on those processes that are likely to be relatively easy to change. Getting them running smoothly will provide a win right out of the gate, helping to calm the fears of workers who have their doubts about the benefits of RPA. That approach will prevent manufacturers from getting bogged down for months in a complicated implementation with little or nothing to show for their efforts. It will also enable them to learn from each implementation, making adjustments each time as they deal with increasingly complex processes.
- Educate and communicate: RPA can represent a major change to a manufacturer’s business processes. It’s important to take the time to make sure employees are aware of the likely changes RPA will bring about and how it will impact their jobs. Allow for sufficient time and money for everyone from managers and IT staff to line workers to get comfortable with the changes that will occur. While many employees will find that their jobs are more interesting and fulfilling once RPA begins to handle routine tasks, others may have to recognize that they will need to upgrade their skillsets.
- Take RPA seriously: Manufacturers should approach RPA in the same way they would any other critical project. Before implementation, objectives should be defined, critical milestones identified, and achievements documented and communicated. A project leader and project team should be designated to develop and execute the project plan.
- Sustain the change: Manufacturers must recognize that their work is not done once RPA implementation is complete. To sustain RPA’s impact, manufacturers should invest in a proven process platform to capture and store automated processes. This will allow them to be easily updated and accessible to employees anytime, anywhere. Teams can recover quickly if automation fails temporarily when they can see the big picture, including their automated — and non-automated — processes.
Just as robots have streamlined the assembly line, RPA can improve manufacturers’ back-office and operational processes. The key is to proceed methodically, while encouraging employee involvement. Doing so will engender a sense of ownership that will help to reduce risks associated with implementing RPA.
Thomas Kohlenbach is Principal Consultant at Promapp Solutions.