There’s a lot of skepticism when it comes to the use of robotic process automation in the supply chain. Does it really work? Can you really eliminate the human element? And if robots are employed alongside humans, who’s in charge? In some ways, that skepticism is justified. Think back to 15 or 20 years ago, when new supply chain software promised big changes and benefits—like cutting the costs associated with forecasting, managing customer service, and order management.
Unfortunately, most of the time, those benefits failed to materialize, primarily due to user adoption challenges. One of the biggest issues with those early systems was that people didn’t really understand how they worked, and as a result, didn’t know how to utilize them to their full capacity. Take advanced planning systems—ultimately these tools became glorified spreadsheets because humans overrode the forecast created by the systems’ own algorithms, rather than learning how to choose the right algorithm for the best outcome.
Today’s systems are far more sophisticated and user-friendly. Not only can new robotic systems execute repeatable tasks flawlessly, they are also learning systems that understand patterns better than the human brain and are able to identify the right responses to outliers. Moreover, humans are now savvier and gaining confidence in technology. According to Accenture research, 83 percent of executives agree that technology has become both invisible and indivisible from people’s daily lives.1
Should humans be nervous that these machines will make them obsolete? Absolutely not. Yes, machines will most certainly take over some repeatable jobs and do them better. But there will be a huge demand for other high value skills. For instance, according to Accenture Strategy research, 90 percent of executives believe supply chains will automate repetitive tasks and realign internal talent to decision-centric roles.2 Nearly the same percentage said the supply chain workforce will become adept at digital technologies such as augmented reality, 3-D printing, and automation. And 92 percent of executives surveyed said supply chain workforces will be upskilled and enabled to interact and work with machines seamlessly.3
In other words, people are already beginning to make the adjustment and beginning to work effectively with a range of intelligent technologies—from cobots to robots to virtual agents—to get tomorrow’s jobs done. And research shows that people are up for the challenge. Sixty-seven percent of workers believe it will be important to learn new skills to work with artificial intelligence (AI) in the next 3-5 years.4
Robots, of course, are already prevalent in warehousing and manufacturing. But soon they will play a greater role in support functions. Fifty percent of executives in our research said their company expects to automate key planning processes and activities in one to three years; 44 percent said the same about procurement.5
Order processing is a great example. A global client thought it had a good handle on its standard order processing operating procedures. But further investigation revealed more than 200 process variants for the order-to-bill cycle. These variants, which were the result of humans’ resourcefulness in finding workarounds to get things done, became the source of more returns, credit memos, and customer deductions from invoices. Turning this process over to a robot to manage—with humans only intervening when the robot couldn’t handle the request—would virtually eliminate those downstream impacts and improve the consistency and accuracy of the data entered into the system. Additionally, the client’s employees would be freed up to focus on more value-added activities in support of the business and its customers.
Robots will certainly change supply chains in the very near future—both in how they are managed and in the cost to manage them. Soon we’ll see one robot, powered by AI, managing end-to-end processes that today takes four different roles in four different functions to manage. In turn, humans, business processes and operating models will need to change, and there will be strong demand for people who want to work with robots to teach them how to be more effective.
Ultimately, companies will adapt to this new reality, determining how humans and robots work together—and at some point, forget there was ever a time when robots weren’t an integral part of their supply chain operations.
In the end, the question shouldn’t be “who’s the boss when people and robots come together”. It needs to be “how will technology and human ingenuity combine to drive new sources of innovation and growth across the supply chain?”