Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a concept that should be distinguished from physical industrial robots. Robot software does not mean a physical device, but rather a computer program that automates knowledge work done by people. The automation mimics human activity and interaction with applications used in knowledge work. It typically performs clear, logically documentable, routine and repetitive knowledge work tasks that would otherwise be performed by a human being. Such tasks are usually found in the core processes and support functions of organizations. It is best suited as an automation solution when the goal is the automation of production processes and the aim is to maintain the information systems already in use.
Routine knowledge work as typical tasks
The typical tasks that are suitable for robot software include inputting data into systems, copying data from one system to another, data conversions, reporting, data updates and checks. Such tasks may be related to fields such as the company’s invoicing, purchasing, payroll or financial reporting processes. For robot software, the task should be divided into steps based on clear rules that have no room for interpretation, because the robot repeats its tasks according to the given instructions. The robots’ tasks may be initiated by a user or their use may be timed.
RPA can also be used to test a solution concept before the deployment of a full-scale IT solution. For example, rapid RPA piloting of information system integrations can be used to determine the needs and impacts of the integration before a full-scale information system integration project.
The most important benefits of RPA are cost benefits, the reduction of human errors and being able to focus the freed-up human working hours on more challenging customer service or expert work while the robots handle the routine knowledge work. RPA also has its challenges. If the underlying information systems are changed, the robots’ functionalities also need to be changed. Alternatively, if there are mistakes made in teaching the robot its tasks, the robot will repeat the mistakes in its work.
Software robotics for production industries
In the Reboot IoT Factory project (2018–2021) funded by Business Finland, industrial and research partners jointly developed over a hundred shared-risk proof of concept (PoC) technology pilot programs for industrial problems (https://rebootiotfactory.fi/). The pilot programs were broadly related to the different functions of industrial companies, covering fields such as product development, purchasing, production, sales, factory automation and logistics. They included several experiments using RPA. Scanfil’s RPA PoC was one of seven high impact pilot programs in the project. “The Reboot project played an important role in promoting the issue in the company. Through the research project, we got to know the RPA supplier candidates, heard other companies’ experiences of RPA and, of course, shared what we have learned with others,” says Maarit Säilynoja, ICT Director at Scanfil.
Robot software processing purchase orders at Scanfil
Scanfil plc, founded in 1976, is an industrial manufacturing partner and system supplier that manufactures products for a wide range of industries. Scanfil has production facilities in Finland, Sweden, Poland, Estonia, Germany, the USA and China. The company has been utilizing automation and digitalization for a long time, but software robotics was still new to them. Therefore, the company decided to carry out the PoC pilot program as part of the Reboot IoT Factory project. The automation of purchase orders was chosen for the pilot because of the potential benefits and the short payback period.
Before the RPA project, the purchase process worked as follows: Scanfil’s ERP system created purchase proposals based on the sales and production plans and demand forecasts. The purchasing personnel manually processed the purchase proposals one by one, combined them into orders for each supplier and sent the orders to the supplier.
After the deployment of the RPA system, the robot software analyzed the purchase proposals generated by the ERP system and divided them into routine orders and other orders based on predefined rules, including the value of the order. After that, the robot software executed most of the routine orders and independently sent information about them to the purchasing and design personnel. The purchasing personnel, on the other hand, handled the small number of remaining proposals and placed the orders related to them.
Thanks to the deployment of the RPA system, the purchasing and design personnel were able to focus better on the more challenging orders and other tasks related to purchasing. At the company level, RPA reduced the working time spent on routine purchases by an estimated 5–10 person years, and this time could now be used for activities that produce more added value.
Software robotics brings benefits
RPA has brought clear direct and indirect benefits to Scanfil. The payback period for the investment in the technology itself (software license and platform deployment) was only three months, which could be calculated using the saved working hours. The employees also welcomed the change. RPA significantly reduced the performance of routine tasks that are less motivating, freeing up time for more meaningful and challenging tasks. This was very useful during the coronavirus pandemic from the perspective of supply chain resilience, as buyers now had more time to identify alternative suppliers. The global crisis in supply chains significantly increased the share of demanding expert work.
A good solution when applied to the right task
The robot software must be taught how to do its task – that is, it must be programmed with operating rules. Scanfil employs several people whose job description includes teaching robot software. Working with RPA regularly, even if it is only once a week, ensures that personnel maintain a sufficient level of expertise and that newly-developed functionalities can be utilized.
The technology itself is ready for the widespread use of software robotics in companies. It is important to choose the right process to automate. A good starting point is to think: “Would I hire a person to do this?” The best applications are tasks that are carried out for a long time, repeatedly and with a fixed process. Exceptions in the performance of a task can be directed to a person according to the rules so that the exceptions can also be properly processed. Thus, the robot software can handle the basic load of the task, while the people only need to focus on the more challenging cases that require human reflection. It should be noted, however, that it would not be wise to fully automate complex business-critical functions, as it could lead to the task-related expertise disappearing from the company if the company relies on automation too much.
All in all, Scanfil is satisfied with software robotics and can recommend its use to others. In addition to purchasing operations, the company has also tried RPA in other tasks. However, it has not been suitable for all applications, so there is still a lot to learn. From the IT department’s perspective, RPA provides solutions that traditional IT automation cannot perform or where it would not be cost-effective. The word ‘robot’ itself can have negative associations, but it has not taken jobs away from Scanfil, only removed routine tasks. The employees have also been happy with the deployment of the new system.
Jukka Kääriäinen, Marko Jurvansuu, Marko Jurmu: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
Jukka Majava, Osmo Kauppila: University of Oulu
Maarit Säilynoja: Scanfil plc