Robotic process automation in the manufacturing supply chain

RPA in manufacturingRobotic Process Automation, or RPA as it's commonly known, often conjures up images of human-like robots with circuit boards for brains and mechanical limbs wandering the factory floor.

But the the type of RPA that exists in the near future (and right now) is something a little more familiar. Think software rather than humanoids. Think efficiency rather than dominance. Think business agility, rather than mechanical limbs.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is defined by The Manufacturer as 'a software that is integrated with business processes in order to automate certain activities, minimise human error, and maximise productivity.'  

This enables manufacturers to automate certain work processes and reduce the time spent on manual tasks, so more time can be dedicated to mission critical work. While RPA is already embraced by organisations worldwide, it can feel scarily futuristic for some. But the benefits for both a business and its employees are immense, and its presence is set to proliferate as more and more leaders recognise its capabilities.

What are the benefits of RPA for manufacturing?

Mundane, repetitive tasks can take hours for a human to complete. And they leave a lot of room for error. Incorrect details found later down the line can cause hold ups.

This added wait time causes frustrations for customers, delays deliveries and pushes back time to market. With RPA, those frustrations are eliminated since its software can be integrated with business processes to automate human tasks. The risk of human error is significantly reduced, and tasks can be conducted with greater accuracy and speed.

Meanwhile, manufacturers are finding that they can speed up financial tasks. Finances and numbers can become hard to track along a busy, chaotic supply chain. As orders come in and updates grow, robotic assistance can help manufacturers keep moving swiftly while automating financial tasks such as invoice processing and sales, no matter the language or format they arrive in. 

RPA is also enabling manufacturers to grow and scale with ease. Scaling used to be extremely challenging when every single employee had to be given access to new technology, and trained on said technology. RPA eliminates that difficulty. 

How might RPA look in the manufacturing supply chain?

We could expect to see RPA used in supply chains in the form of cognitive augmentation, where it's designed to mimic the actions of a human employee. This includes capturing, replicating and processing data. This cognitive level of automation can go as far as self-learning, making predictions and adapting behaviour as a result. It might also become aware of mistakes (while there may be very few) and learn from its past actions.

This level of machine learning can be hard for some people to fully comprehend, but the main reason for manufacturers adopting RPA will be to streamline operations and improve the efficiency and accuracy of their supply chains.

Will they take our jobs?

RPA can be used in place of humans  for manual, repetitive tasks where the need for error-free, consistent output is crucial. But relax, the robots aren't coming to steal your jobs.

There is already a robotic presence in many manufacturing sites, both in the office and the factory floor. RPA can dramatically improve the accuracy and efficiency of mundane administrative tasks such as data extraction and analysis. You might also find RPA in areas of the production line where it might be too dangerous for humans to carry out a task. RPA can come in closer contact with substances and electrical currents for example, that could be otherwise deadly for humans. 

But where deep cognitive ability is required, we will still need to rely on humans. We simply cannot replicate human intuition and decision-making. Well, not yet anyway.

Humans are still of great value within the manufacturing production line. RPA will allow talented employees to commit more time to meaningful work, training and development, and to create and innovate. 

New Call-to-action

Written by Neil Sharp

Neil has over 25 years’ experience in Electronics Manufacturing Services and Component Distribution. During his career, Neil has held a range of leadership positions in sales, marketing, and customer service. Neil is currently part of the ESCATEC Senior Management Team and is responsible for setting and delivering the overall Group Marketing strategy. Neil heads up the marketing department and is responsible for both the strategy and the implementation of innovative marketing campaigns designed to deliver high quality content to those seeking outsourcing solutions.