Here’s a piece of linguistic trivia: did you know that the word “manufacturing” comes from the Latin for “making things by hand”? That’s a far cry from today’s reality—Latin has gone out of use a long time ago, and mass manual production will inevitably become a thing of the past, too.
Modern factories are steadily becoming increasingly automated with time- and resource-efficient machines delegated to assembly line duties while human staff oversees the process. The industrial automation market is projected to grow at over 8% each year globally, and the number of industrial robots increases by 14% per year.
But there’s more to manufacturing than just factory-floor tasks. Supply chain management, customer engagement, inventory planning, sales and order processing… These non-production workflows are just as critical for the business as the production itself. So, why not apply the same effective, automated approach to them?
That’s where Robotic Process Automation (RPA) steps in. In this blog post, we’ll investigate the main operational challenges in manufacturing, the industry-specific uses of RPA, and the benefits of implementing it for all stakeholders. All that to get you started on the road towards full automation of your manufacturing business.
Learn more about using RPA in other industries, like insurance, logistics, or real estate.
The challenges in modern manufacturing
Recent years have been tough: supply chain disruptions, pandemic, great resignation, demographic shifts, and inflation have all taken a heavy toll on many industries, including manufacturing. At the same time, there are also the lifelong challenges of day-to-day operations that all businesses have to face. What are they?
- Staff shortages — According to a study by the Workforce Institute, 54% of manufacturers named hiring skilled employees as the top post-pandemic recruitment challenge. Still, it’s hardly the only one: other major hurdles include stiff competition for talent with other businesses or the industry’s negative image among younger potential hires.
- Supply chain inefficiencies — Between congestion issues, container shortages, increasing chain complexity, growing costs, and dependence on a single source for vital materials, global supply lines were already stretched thin before 2020. The system needed very little to collapse, and the pandemic was just the final straw.
- High operational costs — In the case of some business expenses, the figures have gone through the roof. For example, Deloitte reports that shipping costs have increased by 77% between January 2021 and August 2022. Remember that your partners are also affected, which makes them likely to charge more for parts and resources critical to your business.
- Efficient inventory management — Striking the balance between under and overstocking, shifting demand, tracking inconsistencies, limited visibility, and tons of paperwork—due to these factors, optimal inventory management is a never-ending effort. Supply chain disruptions don’t make it any easier, either.
- Ensuring customer satisfaction — As proven in a Zendesk study, 81% of industrial customers claim that a positive experience encourages another purchase. That number alone should make manufacturing executives realize that excellent customer service in the sector is no longer a nice bonus but a necessity.
- Increasing productivity — Manufacturing businesses that strive to remain competitive must make the most out of their potential. A significant part of this challenge lies in identifying improvements beyond pure production output: better planning, higher visibility, or removing siloed data.
If all that sounds dire, the good news is that you can address all these difficulties with RPA implementation.
What processes to automate?
First, let’s make one thing clear: RPA is by no means a silver bullet for every single challenge troubling your business because no solution is.
However, many problematic processes in manufacturing meet the criteria of a perfect automation candidate. These workflows are:
Now, what exactly are the best tasks to automate with RPA in manufacturing?
Supply chain management
No surprises here — supply chain management involves a lot of smaller, consecutive, and repeating tasks which are easy to automate and can bring a quick ROI.
One of the significant advantages of RPA-driven SCM is enhanced visibility. Shipments are tracked in real-time, and status updates are automatically sent across all supply chain links. Coordinating SCM also gets much more straightforward when your employees don’t need to handle all the paperwork manually, fill in delivery forms, and go through piles of messages in search of necessary data, having handed these tasks over to bots instead.
Bill of materials
A bill of materials (BOM) is a go-to reference document in manufacturing that lists all raw materials, assemblies, and parts needed to create the end product. BOMs also cover the details of these components, such as units of measure, part numbers, their origin, and manufacturer.
Creating a BOM is a precision job. It’s easy to imagine how even the slightest error can lead to huge losses of time, money, and resources.
RPA makes BOM generation simpler and more accurate. When integrated with optical character recognition (OCR) technology, it can scan documentation for particular product details or even find better alternatives to the currently used parts. A properly programmed RPA system is also capable of reproducing the sequence necessary to create a BOM in such a way that all data included in the documentation is fully traceable.
Even with a flawless BOM ready, you still need to ensure that your warehouse is stocked with the required materials. That can get tricky when demand and supply start to fluctuate.
A well-programmed RPA system has several ways to prevent shortages and keep production going. First, the script compiles and analyzes large bulks of storage data to help you predict the demand. Second, it monitors your inventory levels and condition 24/7 and instantly notifies the relevant employees when critical stocks run low. Lastly, the system independently initiates resupply orders based on inventory records.
Sales and purchases lie at the foundation of any business. When not managed efficiently, order management can bog down not just your back-office operations but the functioning of the entire organization.
RPA shows its value already at the vendor selection stage, where it assists manufacturers in scanning documents, preparing proposals and quotation requests, or evaluating supplier credit. Further on, bots can identify order emails, submit orders to your ERP, track payment status, and request approvals.
Don’t forget about invoice processing — RPA will easily handle generating new invoices or pulling data from the existing ones, all virtually without any human intervention.
Despite automation becoming increasingly present in manufacturing, engineers still spend 37% of their work time manually retrieving analytical data. Data management and analysis are not only time-consuming but also highly prone to error.
Luckily, working with data is where RPA truly shines. In manufacturing, this is leveraged by integrating RPA with data-heavy systems like ERP, WMS, and CRM. Whether it’s migrating, converting, updating, collecting, or entering records, thanks to automation, you can rest assured that it will be done fast and correctly. In the meantime, your engineers will finally be able to use their time and skills better.
Maintaining short response times and high-quality customer service becomes increasingly difficult as your manufacturing business scales up. If you rely only on manual service desk processes, that is.
For simple, common cases, RPA enables fast and easy self-service through automated quotes and answers or intelligent chatbots. When the inquiry requires the assistance of a customer service agent, bots can help them get to the root of the problem and find answers faster by pulling customer and order data from your internal systems.
RPA: Benefits for everyone
Implementing RPA in manufacturing benefits all parties involved: manufacturers themselves, business partners, and customers. What are the advantages for these stakeholders?
For you as a manufacturer, the benefits are most obvious and tangible. A properly set up RPA system will quickly pay for itself despite the initial cost. Then, it will start to save you money by eliminating costly errors, freeing up your staff from mundane duties, and improving efficiency.
Another benefit of RPA is its scalability. Once a given workflow is automated, you won’t need to hire additional staff to increase its output. Just assign more computing power to ensure it runs smoothly and spend the resources needed for recruitment on other investments.
From the perspective of your partners, RPA also makes things easier. Their orders are processed faster, shipments reach them without delays, and they won’t receive duplicated or incorrect invoices from you anymore. The improvements just show.
There’s also a secondary value: it’s a clear signal that you’re willing to invest in new technologies, positioning you as a preferable partner for the future.
Your customers are essentially your most important business partners. They, too, will soon notice how your operations have been optimized, be it by better order tracking, automatic price quotations, or consistent availability of your products.
Of course, the added value for your clients is effective customer service. Thanks to the RPA-empowered customer desk, they can take care of simple issues themselves with the help of automated assistants or have more complex problems solved faster by an agent-bot support team.
The bottom line
Precision, efficiency, and scalability — these three qualities are the defining features of a successful manufacturer. RPA is a proven way to achieve all of them in one swing, with an improved outcome for your business, partners, and customers.
Are you still wondering if RPA will work well for your manufacturing business? Drop us a line or schedule a call, and tell our RPA consultants about your unique challenges. We’ll create a custom automated solution and give you a free Proof of Concept for your processes so that you can see for yourself how RPA is transforming the manufacturing industry.
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