Business Process Automation

Is it time to invest in robots?

This is a contributed article by Gavin Fell, general manager UK, Exact

For many people, the terminology that goes with the phenomenon of robotisation has negative connotations. When they hear the word ‘robots’, they’ll immediately think of R2-D2 or Terminator-type cyborgs. If the predictions are to be believed, robots will soon be operating all of our machines, providing healthcare, and serving food and drinks at our homes.

Looking at robotisation in this way misses out on one important aspect: the fact that robotisation today mainly refers to software automation. For entrepreneurs who want to determine the relevance of robots to their business now and in the near future, it’s important to make this distinction.


Physical robots

First, let's take a closer look at robots in the traditional sense: physical robots that resemble people to a greater or lesser extent. Although efforts to develop robots that look like people are increasingly successful, this is not necessarily the most relevant area of robotics - not yet, at least.

Physical robots used on a large scale are currently found in heavy industry and maintenance. Robotic arms that can lift heavy objects in factories, for example, or drone bots that can service electric pylons. These robots have one thing in common: they have no physical limitations.

Physical robots are currently carrying out repetitive, hard work for us, from paving streets to heavy lifting. Experts agree that robots will increasingly relieve us of repetitive tasks in the coming years and after that, they will carry out more skilled labour. A prime example can be found in warehouses: bots have carried out basic order picking for quite some time, but now they are also able to take care of intelligent picking.


Software bots

The same applies to robots that essentially consist of software. There’s a clear business case for bots as they can execute jobs more efficiently than people. For example, software can handle large volumes of patient files faster and more accurately than people in order to help GPs arrive at diagnoses. Similarly, lawyers can find valuable case information by using software to conduct discovery or to search for jurisprudence.

In finance, robotisation can be used for automatic approval and processing of invoices, for example. However, this is just the beginning. If we can teach a bot to process invoices, it’s not such a big step to help it understand the rules that govern financial processes, using machine learning software. This ensures that software bots can work with a degree of autonomy. People will only be called upon when exceptions arise that the robot cannot assess.


To robotise or not to robotise?

There is a great deal of speculation today regarding what jobs will or will not be taken over by bots. With a little imagination, you can see how ultimately the majority of human work could be performed by robots. However, as an entrepreneur, that knowledge doesn’t really benefit you right now. Today, it is especially interesting to look at the short and medium-term impact.

In the coming years, it is expected that tasks in which people are the main bottleneck will be taken over by robots, on a large scale. Prime candidates are anything that takes a relatively long time to complete, for which we lack the mental capacity, or which is too dangerous (or boring). Keep in mind that the reviewing of medical and legal files is gradually being taken over by software bots because they are so good at recognising and analysing text and can work continuously, remaining focused for hours or days at a time. They can analyse vast amounts of data in a short time and base their decisions on what they find.

The same is true of accounting, which is typically governed by extensive structures and rules, allowing tasks to be standardised and harmonised. A few years ago, it made sense to allow people to process and record invoices, but today’s software is smart enough to allow this to be easily automated.


Four questions

As an entrepreneur, before you decide to invest in robot technology, it is advisable to consider the following four questions.

What is your need?

Robotisation for the sake of technology alone is never a good idea. There must be a clear advantage to using robots: for example, because the work that needs to be done is too demanding for people, or too boring and repetitive, or because machines can perform certain tasks more efficiently or qualitatively.

Where do you start?

Review your processes and find out where large amounts of repetitive standard operations are hidden.

What are the costs?

This is where the business case comes in: how do you justify the investment? When does a robot pay back the amount it cost? How do you incorporate hidden expenses, such as unemployment and retraining, into the business case?

Who will take responsibility?

Properly implementing and maintaining bots is a task that should not be underestimated. Make clear arrangements regarding the responsibilities this brings – is the department using the robots responsible or will it fall to the IT department?

Consider the fact that robotisation is not just a matter of technological development. Successful implementation also has important social and corporate culture aspects. In addition, you’ll also need to reconsider employees’ tasks once part of their work has been handed over to robots.


What will humans do?

For now, as an entrepreneur, you need to focus on tasks in which people are the biggest bottleneck. Once you’ve done that, the next step is easily made: the development of a business case.

The more effective and efficient robots become, the sooner that business case can be made. Even if you don’t develop this for your business, one of your competitors definitely will, and that means they’ll eventually take the lead. It is not a question of 'whether' you’ll need to look into robotisation, but 'when'.


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