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Reaping the rewards of Robotic Process Automation

Two ships carrying identical cargoes have just docked at a busy port.

One shipment experiences the usual delays and frustrations. A customs declaration for one container mistakenly refers to 1000 units rather than 100. One item of cargo has the wrong safety certificate. Some of the delivery addresses are incorrect, leading to confusion with the truck dispatchers. One consignment has the wrong parts because somebody misread a decimal place.

The mistakes are eventually sorted out, but it takes time and money.

The second shipment clears the port with no errors. All the information is 100% accurate. Why? The supply chain has been managed with robotic process automation.

What is robotic process automation?

Robotic process automation, or RPA, does not involve robots as they exist in the popular imagination.

RPA is the use of software to carry out repetitive tasks that we do on computers. Increasingly, it is having a dramatic effect on costs, productivity, and accuracy.

The supply chain involves a vast amount of paperwork and manually entered data  – emails and digital forms. Purchase orders, invoices, cargo manifests, customs declarations, delivery dockets, warehouse inventories – all necessary documents to ensure that the right package gets to the right place at the right time, in line with all relevant regulations.

Inputting data and generating the right documents is time-consuming, monotonous work. When people do the same task again and again, they inevitably make mistakes – because they are tired, bored, overworked, or unmotivated.

But machines don’t make those mistakes. Rules-based, repetitive work is ideal for a computer. It can carry out the same task 24 hours a day, doing exactly what it has been programmed to do without errors.

Why does it matter?

Businesses are under constant pressure to reduce overhead. Hiring people and training them on complex IT systems is expensive. When the work those people are doing is largely drudgery, it doesn’t just lead to errors: It is a waste of a valuable resource – the skills, talent and experience of that worker.

RPA can free employees to do more of the things that humans excel at and computers don’t: problem solving, reacting to unexpected events, creative thinking, and dealing with other people. Individual employees are not only more productive, but they experience greater job satisfaction, and are less likely to leave for other jobs.

Studies have shown that robotic process automation can make back-office operations up to ten times faster, and cut average costs by 37%.  


Many back-office jobs have been outsourced to external providers in an effort to minimize costs. But the efficiency savings of this trend are tailing off, partly as a result of growing wages in many of the countries where jobs have been transferred. Outsourcing the work also involves reputational risk: mistakes and poor-quality service by external providers and third-party contractors can have a damaging effect on a company’s brand.

RPA gives companies the opportunity to bring much of this work back in house. Improved customer service can pay huge dividends in supply chains where trust is a significant factor in deciding who to work with.

As the accuracy of data improves, more can be done with it. Combining RPA with data provided by technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) will allow companies to build highly accurate models of supply chains. Gaps in the market, and potential problems, can be identified, Companies which make the right use of this data will have significant competitive advantages.

…and challenges

Designing an automated process for a particular task using a particular interface is relatively simple. But when different IT systems and interfaces are used, making sure that one program can understand the data provided by another is more complicated.

Even within individual companies, IT systems can vary widely. The warehouse may be run on an entirely different operating system from the accounts department. In a complex supply chain with multiple stakeholders, this problem is amplified dramatically.

For RPA to achieve its full potential, systems need to be integrated enough to allow data to be transferred seamlessly from one end of the chain to another. This means companies must consider what systems their partners use. Compatibility will be a key factor in any decisions about upgrading systems to avoid expensive mistakes.

Robotic processes will do exactly what they are told to do with the data they are given. Although more sophisticated systems can spot anomalous information, there will always be a need for people to monitor and improve processes to ensure the desired outcome.

Where now?

RPA is already being used across the industry. But in many organizations, it  is deployed in silos. Many companies have already automated their invoicing, and also their delivery operations. But most have done so separately – the two systems don’t work with each other.

Agility is looking to integrate these processes all the way along the supply chain. End-to-end services like our Shipa brand are designed to make logistics easier and cheaper. This kind of business is ideal for RPA – ensuring the right goods get to the right place with the minimum of fuss.

What we are learning

At multiple points in the supply chain, the movement of freight is still reliant on manual data entry. But even limited deployment of RPA is exposing how those points so often become points of failure.

The most rapid adoption of RPA to date involves forwarders and carriers using it to automate event tracking and to bridge gaps between systems that require data transfer. Watch for faster, broader take up as the heavy cost of continued reliance on manual entry becomes clearer.