8 Use Cases for Robotic Process Automation in Supply Chains
Remember the giant container ship that got wedged across the Suez Canal causing traffic in one of the world’s busiest waterways?
It might have put logistics on the map for six days, but it’s not the only thing that impeded supply chain operations over the past couple of years.
The global pandemic wreaked more havoc on supply chains, causing trade disruptions, labor shortages, lack of key components and raw materials, congested ports, and more.
But not all businesses were affected in the same way.
Big enterprises like Unilever and Wayfair stepped up investments in robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI), automating the movement of goods from their factories to consumers’ doorsteps.
That’s because RPA promises to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and build supply chain resilience.
It’s no surprise that in the next 3 to 5 years, 72% of supply chain leaders expect to automate most of their business processes and workflows.
Interested in joining their ranks? This guide covers RPA’s possible use cases in supply chains and how you can derive significant value from automation.
1. Data Entry Activities
A well-run supply chain depends on coordinated and synchronized activities, from the factory floors to warehouses to loading docks to the consumers’ doorsteps.
Behind the scenes, there are even more complex processes to automate, including data entry.
Software robots take supply chain optimization to the next level by:
- Building a data-rich framework for better decision-making and help optimize for more efficient processes in ports and warehouses.
- Streamlining data flow across supply chain networks for easier collaboration and greater flexibility.
RPA bots speed up data collection and reconciliation. For instance, they gather and enter customers’ and order information into business applications like ERPs and CRMs.
By handling this manual, time-consuming, potentially error-laden, and repetitive task, RPA minimizes risk and speeds up supply chain processes. Plus, it frees employees to do strategic, higher value-add work, improving productivity and efficiency.
Adam Schmidt, marketing coordinator at Gentiam Electronics, describes how automation has delivered significant results for their company:
“We have automated (or are in the process of automating) quite a significant portion of our supply chain, including and working back from when the order is received, the fulfillment, storage, packaging, and assembly are all on a fully automated system. As a small business and startup, taking this approach has allowed us to significantly reduce our labor costs, allowing for a very small team to address our supply chain needs. While we still manually work with a few new suppliers, the goal is to incorporate all suppliers into a single automated supply chain management system by the summer of 2023.”
2. Order Processing and Payments
The order-to-cash process (O2C) is one of the hardest to track and optimize. It involves receiving customers’ orders and delivering them in exchange for cash.
When the order management and accounts receivable teams don’t work together, it’s difficult to achieve true efficiency in the O2C process, leading to more challenges, like:
- High error rates
- Costly rework
- Poorly maintained customer information
- Delivery delays
- Lost revenue
- Reduced customer retention rates
RPA automates the O2C process—which heavily depends on accurate data and document preparation—streamlining data entry and order submission via online portals.
Bots copy invoice data from supply chain management systems into accounting systems for easier updating of transaction data in company databases.
Automating the O2C process improves efficiency, reduces costs, reduces errors and likelihood of delays, increases customer satisfaction, and boosts revenues.
For example, RPA can help discover post-goods issues (order is picked and ready for shipping but it’s delayed) in the O2C process—which results in incorrect inventory levels in the system and customer dissatisfaction.
Software bots can manage post-goods issues, relieving already-burdened shipping specialists of this cumbersome task. The results: optimal inventory levels and timely delivery of customers’ orders.
3. Addressing Post-Sales Customer Needs
Customers regularly inquire about your products or services, returns, swaps, refunds, updates on re-stocking, shipment, and delivery, among other issues.
Before automation, sharing shipment status was an entirely manual process. Employees shifted between multiple platforms and channels to assist customers, wasting more time and lowering workers’ productivity—the same goes for the post-sales wrap-up.
RPA bots can open emails, recognize customers’ texts, log information into the shipping system, determine shipment status, and reply to customers before moving on to the next inquiry—without human intervention.
Today, companies use software robots and other technologies to improve customer service in complex supply chains.
If a customer places a service request from your company’s mobile app, a chatbot can interact with them, place their requests in the system, capture ticket data, and escalate any complex requests to human agents.
RPA bots can also send automatic acknowledgment emails to customers and quickly flag any issues. This reduces employee effort and time spent on back-office tasks so they can focus solely on customers’ needs.
4. Communicating with Vendors
Supplier selection is another highly manual process that involves:
- Preparing a request for quotation (RFQ).
- Communicating with vendors.
- Preliminary analysis of vendor documents.
- Evaluating vendors through running credit and compliance checks.
- Finalizing vendor selection.
RPA automates most of these steps, eliminating the need for human intervention—except when specifying sourcing projects, shortlisting potential vendors, and physical site visits and negotiations.
Software bots can automate activities in the vendor selection process like onboarding and communicating with new vendors, allowing companies to create more agile supply chain plans.
Manufacturing companies can use RPA bots to collect and compare data from their supplier networks and flag any discrepancies or constraints.
5. Order Management
From order capture to invoicing, the order management process comprises multiple rote, repetitive tasks that traditionally required significant manual effort.
Software robots gather data from multiple silos, such as spreadsheets, information management modules, or web portals, transferring it to warehouse management systems to fill orders faster. Bots can send emails, initiate calls,
and collate reports, giving supply chain managers the information they need to make better business decisions.
RPA optimizes and streamlines critical components of the order management and fulfillment process, bringing significant time savings and reducing delays in delivery.
6. Shipping and Logistics
A shortage of delivery services means that companies have to absorb the logistics function into their own operational processes.
However, shipping and logistics management is fraught with challenges, particularly due to the struggle to plan delivery routes in the most time-efficient manner.
RPA automatically determines optimal routes and number of orders per courier, dramatically simplifying delivery logistics. This way, customers can get their orders within specific time slots while businesses minimize costs and maximize revenues.
Drew Sherman, Director of Marketing & Communications at RPM—a professional vehicles and freight transport company—recounts the challenges suppliers faced during the pandemic:
“The pandemic affected the supply chain industry significantly. The lockdowns that were enforced due to COVID-19 outbreaks delayed productivity from factories and suppliers significantly, which caused major shipping and transportation setbacks due to products not being available soon enough. Furthermore, restrictions increased with the Hours-of-Service standards for truck drivers, which were brought on by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration during the pandemic.”
RPA makes the delivery phase of the supply chain process more efficient by working alongside AI-based intelligent routing systems that coordinate multiple shipping and logistics partners.
Software bots can:
- Monitor orders.
- Update order handover details across enterprise applications and systems.
- Automatically assign a delivery partner based on the location of the products.
- Generate notifications to customers in case of any delays.
- Manage cross-border shipments that may require extra coordinated customs, storage, and inspection processes.
“While we cannot control the speed at which our customers make their products, we are able to optimize the speed at which our carriers are matched with the right customers for successful shipments. For instance, there are certain carriers that can transport certain products more effectively, based upon factors such as how big the carrier is, and our hub helps to identify these factors.” —Drew Sherman.
7. Warehouse Management
If you store products in a warehouse, fulfillment, or distribution center, you’ll need proper warehouse management.
A warehouse management system (WMS) ensures that materials and goods move efficiently and cost-effectively. However, a WMS doesn’t tackle inventory errors, which can occur as employees receive, pick, pack, scan, store, ship, transport, retrieve, and deliver goods.
RPA frees up employees from such manual tasks, speeding up processes within the organization and improving operational efficiency.
Automation also increases accuracy in the picking, scanning, and replenishment processes, making them more efficient while reducing overheads.
8. Supply and Demand Planning
Before RPA, employees would manually gather the data they needed from a wide range of sources, including vendors, customers, sales, and market information, and present it in a standardized format.
RPA automates most of these responsibilities and transforms the final data into a plan for effective communication with suppliers, customers, logistics teams, and partners.
Software bots collect and collate the data you need for supply and demand planning, ensuring reliable source and procure processes at minimal costs. Your team gets more time to handle bot exceptions, run simulations, and hold critical supply and demand planning meetings.
Bots also keep inventory management system records updated. And—if equipped with AI-processing capability (also known as cognitive automation)—bots can eliminate duplication of product names and transcription errors.
RPA also facilitates sales analytics, giving retailers more precise insights into store performance, customer behavior, and other important data points. Software bots can regularly pull data from point of sale (POS) systems and generate strategic reports for business managers to review sales and performance trends.
Challenges to Implementing RPA in Supply Chains
Supply chain automation offers a host of business benefits, but organizations face some challenges when implementing RPA. Here are some of the main ones:
- Complex or poorly documented processes: Process complexity across business units or locations drives robot complexity, making it costlier and harder to design and implement RPA.
- Lack of responsive and secure IT buy-in and support: A struggling or disengaged IT team may not get you the buy-in you need to successfully integrate the RPA solution.
- Incorrect stakeholder expectations: RPA benefits can create unrealistic and early expectations in stakeholders’ minds, which, if not handled expediently, might lead them to brand RPA as an abject failure in the organization.
- Difficulty getting buy-in from stakeholders and employees: RPA implementation requires stakeholder and employee buy-in at different levels across the organization. Otherwise, they’ll dismiss RPA as a hyped-up, low-value, advanced technology that will completely disrupt the business.
How Leaniar Can Help
Leaniar’s RPA helps you automate your supply chain processes at a fraction of the cost and time so you can realize compliance and efficiency gains. Our automation experts work with you to eliminate process complexity and get RPA implementation buy-in and support across the organization.
Contact us to learn how we can help you build a more agile, flexible, and resilient supply chain to improve your company’s chances for long-term success.