For success manufacturers need to look beyond automation to a world of intelligent automation where digitally enabled workers and robots work together

The manufacturing industry is inherently complex, with more moving parts than ever before. Supply chains are geographically diverse. Regulatory requirements continually evolve. Massive amounts of information are often stored outside of organisation applications and are difficult (or impossible) to access when needed. And many manufacturers still rely on processes that largely, if not entirely, consist of manual and/or paper-based tasks that drain productivity.

“The good news is that most manufacturers are keen to explore the path toward automation—moving away from ‘the way we’ve always done it’ and moving toward working like the digitally transformed business of tomorrow,” Chris Huff, Chief Strategy Officer, Kofax, says. “And many have begun to take action.”

A global Forbes Insights survey was conducted and found that 48% of manufacturers have taken the crucial early step to inventory some processes and 46% have already adopted automation software for some processes. But for many manufacturers, the goal of enterprise-wide digital transformation can seem more like a pipe dream than a possibility. Common barriers to adopting automation software that were reported include a lack of skill set (27%), unconvinced of ROI (33%), belief that it’s cost-prohibitive (42%), assertion that current processes are broken (22%) and lack of buy-in from senior leadership (27%).

“So, although the power of automation in transforming operations is very real, any plan requires taking an honest look at the business’ status quo, gaining a solid understanding of the market and seeking expertise on the best path for successfully navigating the journey,” Huff adds.

Staying the course toward business optimisation

Manufacturing is a document-driven market, so it is not surprising that many operations throughout the industry are still mired to some extent in paper and/or manual, task-based processes. In fact, 9% of manufacturers surveyed reported they manually process all tasks, and 31% reported they can automate small tasks, but rely on humans to string the tasks together and check at every stage. Less than 1/3 reported they could automate many tasks together to automate a larger business process with a human intervening only in the case of exceptions. Clearly, progress is being made, but there’s still a way to go.

“The sheer number of documents referencing the production, trade, transportation, development and eventual disposal of goods has exploded over the past two decades,” Huff says. “Globalisation has added to these pressures, as companies have to adhere to standards from different countries. The effects of these regulations are particularly visible along the supply chain: documents such as letters of consignment, import lists, export declarations, delivery notes, carnets and certificates of origin must be delivered at predetermined points in time either along with the goods or prior to their arrival.

“At the same time, many manufacturers are still made up of “islands of information”— production sites, branch offices, departments and business units often don’t share documents and data efficiently. Since not all employees are able to work with the right information at the right time, error-prone and inefficient processing is the result.”

Smarter processes make for smoother journeys

The right process workflow should not contribute to bottlenecks—it should eliminate them and help forge a path between people and the information they need to manage day-to-day operations. And an automation solution should make data work for a business.

For manufacturers, automation can encompass core and periphery functions across the organisation—basically any business process: supply and demand planning, order processing, pricing and procurement, inventory tracking and processing, contract monitoring, invoice, quote and contract management, customer support and communication, and regulatory compliance.

“The employee-customer connection is also significant,” Huff says. “Automation empowers workers—they’re freed from tedious manual tasks so they can focus on higher-value, customer-focused work.”

A significant number of manufacturers surveyed said employee satisfaction improved due to automation: 31% reported improvement of 5-15%; 26% reported improvement of 15-25%; and 25% reported improvement of 25% or more. Many reported similar improvements with respect to customer satisfaction: 30% reported improvement of 5-15%; 35% reported improvement of 15-25%; and 17% reported improvement of 25% or more.

And what about the essential reduce cost and increase revenue formula? When asked about cost reduction improvements due to automation, 42% of manufacturers reported improvements in the range of 5-15%; 32% reported improvements of 15-25%; and 11% reported improvements of 25% or more. When asked about revenue generation, 37% reported improvements of 5-15%; 31% reported improvements of 15-25% and 15% reported improvements of 25% or more.

“Automation drives smarter business, and the ability to maximise and extend the scope and degree to which processes can be optimised is redefining how organisations can be competitive in the market and increase satisfaction among employees and customers,” Huff says.

Building and managing a digital workforce with intelligent automation

Huff explains that harnessing the full power of automation to work like the digitally transformed organisation of the future – today – requires seamlessly blending knowledge workers and smart automation capabilities.

“The goal is to create agile workforces that enhance partner relationships, improve margins, enhance regulatory compliance, and increase the quality and accuracy of outputs while driving out cost,” he says. “Many manufacturers begin the digital transformation journey with robotic process automation (RPA), technology that uses software robots to automate repetitive tasks and manual processes and augment the work of your employee workforce. And although companies that are implementing only RPA to automate processes are realising significant benefits, many are choosing to think beyond RPA.

In fact, 60% of manufacturers surveyed reported that their automation initiative was enterprise-wide. “A true enterprise automation solution requires seamless interoperability of RPA and capabilities such as cognitive capture, process orchestration, advanced analytics, and mobility and customer engagement—this is Intelligent Automation (IA),” Huff explains. “Intelligent Automation empowers organisations to realise the full value and ROI that RPA promises by aggregating the complementary technologies RPA requires to manage teams of software bots and scale them to the enterprise. Organisations can start, scale or expand their intelligent digital workforce on their terms and timelines.

“With the IA platform, customers can converge the digital (automation) and physical workforces into a collaboratively run machine to work like tomorrow. This affords benefits such as enhanced service levels, reduced operational costs and increased productivity as a byproduct of leveraging automation to increase organisational capacity—without adding headcount—and empower the physical workforce.”

The result? A digital workforce consisting of humans and robots collaborating to transform the capacity and performance of business operations—enabling manufacturers to work like tomorrow, today.

Chris Huff – Bio

Chris Huff drives Kofax’s global strategic initiatives, Intelligent Automation thought leadership and cross-functional horizontal integration. Prior to Kofax, Chris led Deloitte Consulting’s U.S. Public Sector Robotics and Cognitive Automation practice.