When you have a repetitive, rules-based task to perform in manufacturing, it's not strange to consider using a robot to handle it. However, in the supply chain, with its spreadsheets and order forms, the idea of a robot taking over a manual computer task initially seems ludicrous. Perhaps an electromechanical robot typing away at a computer is far-fetched, but a software robot is not. By emulating the actions of a human user, robotic software can automate many currently manual tasks in the supply chain, saving time and money in the process.

"Some 80% of supply chain processes have already been automated," said Redwood Software's director, supply chain transformation, Ray Barratt in an interview with EBN. "But between 9% and 20% of the cost in supply chain management consists of manual efforts, including handling the occasions when things go wrong."

Barratt pointed out that even automation systems handling SAP and MRP need overarching management by human operators. And if problems or exceptions come up, such as a need to reschedule, these systems need manual intervention. Yet most of these manual operations are rules driven, meaning they can also be automated. All that's needed is the right tool.

This is where software robots come in. Unlike the electromechanical devices most associate with the term robot, the software robot is strictly software. It interacts with the supply chain process entirely electronically. But it does so by emulating the operations a human would use to interact with the system, typing, pointing, clicking, and the like, only from within the computer. And because they interact with existing software through the user interface, compatibility issues do not arise. Once the robot learns what to do, it looks to the other software just like the human user.

Only it's faster and typo free.

"Bringing a software robot into the supply chain process isn't about adding to the process, it's about complementing what is already there," said Barratt. "We're talking about automating some efforts."

In its analysis of the skills used in various supply chain roles, for instance, Redwood Software noted that roles such as product development involve a lot of rote tasks when introducing a new product into the business. Handling routine matters such as establishing country-specific pricing (adding in surcharges, tariffs, taxes, and the like) and packaging requirements, for instance, are all candidates for automation.

Barratt noted that his company's process for creating a software robot begins with understanding the user's current processes to identify where manual efforts are concentrated, then determining whether it is possible and makes economic sense to automate those efforts. The next step is to define what the user does in these efforts, and robotise the process.

The result is not a change in the customer's supply chain process, but a streamlining. "We're taking the aggregation of existing automation technologies a step higher," said Barratt, "by figuring out how to make people's remaining job easier."