Digital Factory? Don’t Forget to Bring the Back-Office Along

Manufacturers could—and should—deploy robotic process automation as part of their digital transformation plans.

With the news of self-driving cars, restaurants without waiters, and drone deliveries, it can look like other sectors are passing manufacturing in putting automation to use. But, according to McKinsey, manufacturing is both the most automated sector, and yet still has one of the highest levels of automation potential among all sectors. As manufacturers develop digital transformation plans to wring evermore productivity out of their production process, don’t ignore all the other areas of the operation.

Finance and healthcare have led the way in deploying tools to automate back-office processes. Known as robotic process automation or RPA, these solutions provide immediate and long-term efficiencies. Better yet, industrial companies can leverage much of their existing expertise deploying plant-floor automation to justify, purchase, deploy and maintain these solutions. But first, RPA needs to be on the table as you develop and execute your digital transformation plans.

What is RPA?

RPA, sometimes called ‘software robots’, for the back-office is similar to automation on the factory floor in that robots take the mundane, repetitive activity off employees’ hands, reducing errors, effort and time required to complete tasks and unleash human potential to focus on weightier challenges. Differences include the fact that the software robots are algorithms, not hulking machines, and they take on entire processes, from start to finish versus a specific task.

Software robots that can communicate directly with the ERP and other business applications. These robots are infinitely scalable without the need to add desktop licenses or infrastructure. And, they can now deliver 70 to 100 percent automation time after time depending on business requirements.

Manufacturers could—and should—deploy RPA as part of their digital transformation plans. After all, you’ve done this before.

Plan for Change

When deploying any new technology, don’t skimp on the upfront work. For RPA to be successful, you need both executive and user support. Most C-level teams are actively exploring or executing their digital transformation plans at this point. Tap into that. The C-suite needs to be the face of this transformation and champion it across the organization from the get-go.

Whether the technology will be used to automate financial reports, HR paperwork or consolidate sales leads, it is important for all executives to have a firm understanding of how the tech works and how it will impact their staff, and be able to explain it to them.

Then commit fully to employee communication and support. While the best RPA offerings are intuitive and agile, it is imperative that users know what to expect and how their role will be altered. In manufacturing especially, robots are associated with job loss. It must be communicated that RPA frees workers from mundane tasks so they can do higher-level work. But they will need help shifting their focus to drive greater value to the wider business.

Prove ROI as You Go

Unlike most physical automation projects, RPA solutions are scalable. You can start with a single robot, or execute a few tasks and scale up as you prove return.  

For example, the finance department conducts close reports each quarter or year. This typically consists of 50 to 70 different processes and hundreds of sub-processes manually completed across various regions and departments. This massive undertaking requires weeks of hard work and late nights. 

RPA can take on a portion of the work, and increase that portion as you prove value. Finance departments provide insight on a more frequent cadence, meaning they become more crucial to driving business decisions.

Like factory automation created the need for more analytical and technical skills in its workforce, finance departments will be able to be strategic and make a bigger impact, even while logging fewer hours of overtime.

Watch the Risk

Automation and robotics inherently minimize the risk by taking over the most error-prone processes, but new technology can introduce risk. In manufacturing, you know how maintenance costs can balloon, enterprise security tools cause issues in production networks, and robots can create safety challenges.

Different RPA tools provide different levels of support and introduce varying degrees of risk. Some solutions provide pre-built robots and support throughout their lifecycle, while others require third-party add-ons and in-house or external experts to deliver a comparable experience.

Third-party add-ons introduce more risk. More connected solutions require greater oversight. The more complex the solution, especially as you extend process usage, the more effort to keep it secure. Wherever possible, consolidate and help keep security simple.

Holistic Transformation

Growth has too frequently been spurred through increased workloads for existing employees. As manufacturers continue along the path to digital transformation, don’t ignore key areas for efficiency gains and workforce improvements just because they are off the factory floor. Your experience with automation means you’re uniquely prepared reap the rewards of RPA.

Neil Kinson is Chief of Staff at Redwood Software.

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