As we head into 2020, business process automation (BPA) is exploding. And along with it, there is a growing list of related acronyms, including RPA, DPA and even IPA (no, not the kind you can drink).
Many times, the terms are used interchangeably. But together, they are all part of the trend toward making the enterprise more efficient and intelligent. In fact, industry analyst firm Gartner reported that robotic process automation (RPA) grew 63.1% in 2018 to $846 million and was expected to reach $1.3 billion in 2019 — which makes the category the fastest-growing software segment in the enterprise. Gartner also predicted that by 2022, 85 percent of large organizations will have deployed some form of RPA.
As it turns out, much of our work at eAlchemy results in business process automation. In fact, it has for years.
The benefits of business process automation
We generally describe what we do as developing custom data tools to help boost companies’ business intelligence. Sometimes, that means applying data science and using advanced tools like machine learning to do things that humans could never do.
“BPA has the potential to automate tedious tasks — tasks that humans don’t really want to do, that take us a long time, and that we’re not really good at, either.”
But more often, the work we do automates reporting or workflows — and the kind of tedious tasks that humans simply don’t want to do or that take up too much of our time. For example, we automated a global planning report for a Fortune 500 apparel retailer — a report that used to take team members the equivalent of 3-5 days to compile on a monthly basis. Now, the report can be run on-demand in five minutes.
Another example: We’re currently working with a telephony company to automate its internal ticketing workflow. The solution we’re building will take customer requests for services logged in a ticketing system and automate their execution in the VoIP systems automatically. In the past, service agents would have to execute these activities themselves or escalate them to a technical agent.
Clearly, automation can help save precious time and make an enterprise more efficient. But automation can also improve quality, too. The more automation, the less chance there is for human error — which can create hidden costs and lead to error-laden reports being shared across the enterprise.
How robots and AI fit into business process automation
Business process automation isn’t new. In fact, back in the early days of eAlchemy, we frequently used Microsoft’s Data Transformation Services (DTS) tool to automate different reports on behalf of our clients.
One thing that’s changed heading into 2020 is the proliferation of APIs that allow different databases and applications to exchange information. Add in the advancement of more sophisticated algorithms (AI) and you have the perfect recipe to enable the buzzworthy robotic process automation (RPA).
In short, RPA is software that can perform repeated tasks that humans may have completed before through a graphical user interface (GUI). But because they don’t need graphical interfaces, RPA algorithms can simply complete tasks through the exchange of information directly via an API. This, of course, leads to drastic reductions in both people’s time and development costs.
Here’s an example of how RPA can improve the supply chain for a consumer goods company:
A large company with a procurement team takes its initial pass at a forecast and communicates the forecast to vendors. Those vendors provide a response on what they can actually do given their constraints (material, capacity, etc.). The company then takes that response and creates a constrained material plan. The challenge is that forecasts change over time. So each time a forecast is updated, the company must update vendors, and the vendors again respond. There is a frequent exchange of information — the new forecast, the changes, the response, the changes from the request, changes from the previous confirmation, and the update of the constrained material plan. Few (if any) systems — and humans that use them — are adept at handling the back and forth efficiently.
However, a custom RPA solution can execute each of these steps elegantly, using custom heuristics to determine what exceptions are important and how to handle them. RPA saves the procurement team the time of gathering data, facilitating the process, and integrating the response. With the saved time, the team can focus on the 10-20% of the exceptions that could really impact the company. And, importantly, the automated flow of information greatly reduces the chance of human error.
Automation vs. jobs, or automation + jobs?
As process automation continues to grow, there is concern about how it could eliminate jobs. According to a recent report, half of all jobs worldwide (800 million) are at risk of becoming obsolete by 2035 because of automation. There’s also growing support for the concept of universal basic income as a means to offset job loss from automation.
There’s little doubt that automation will change and eliminate certain kinds of roles — particularly those that are administrative. But many think automation, like many forms of innovation, will serve as a boon for other types of jobs — possibly creating more jobs than it eliminates.
Regardless of your view on automation and jobs, expect this to be a hot topic for years to come.
What does process automation mean for business?
Ultimately, business process automation and RPA are trending for good reason. They have the potential to automate tedious tasks — tasks that humans don’t really want to do, that take us a long time, and that we’re not really good at, either.
And from a business point of view, automation means time and cost savings. For that Fortune 500 apparel retailer, the tool we built spared the equivalent of 10 full-time jobs. And, according to our client, it had another somewhat surprising benefit: It improved job satisfaction among analysts that were frustrated by the previous report-building process.