Hardware robots are already commonplace in logistics warehouses, distribution facilities, and fulfillment centers. In fact, automation is everywhere, and many people fear that robots will soon fully replace them. Given this, it’s unsurprising that people are apprehensive about robotic process automation (RPA).
However, RPA isn’t physical robots but rather software bots that mimic human interactions with services, systems, and applications. Software bots can perform such routine tasks as entering shipment details into a transport management system (TMS) or filling out a bill of lading (BOL).
A logistics operator can spend all day performing such trivial tasks. Why not make machines perform simple jobs while people use their cognitive skills to move the business forward? That’s exactly why so many companies are choosing RPA and other workflow automation technologies.
How the pandemic accelerated RPA adoption
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted rapid RPA adoption. RPA software was especially valuable when many enterprises experienced labor shortages, especially considering that logistics businesses have faced growing consumer demand and a growing number of orders due to the e-commerce boom. We discuss this topic in detail in our blog article on space optimization.
According to a Gartner forecast, the popularity of robotic process automation is only going to increase, and 90 percent of large organizations will have adopted RPA by 2022.
In the Statista graph below, we can see an impressive increase in investments in RPA software development worldwide over the past five years: from $500 million in 2017 to almost $2 billion in 2021.
A global Forrester survey (among 160 decision-makers in diverse industries) on the pandemic’s impact on the adoption of automation technologies reveals the following:
- 80 percent of respondents want to significantly decrease operational expenses by automating most back-office tasks
- 75 percent of respondents expect to support remote work with RPA, e.g. eliminate paperwork and face-to-face meetings
Thus, RPA software has proven extremely useful in the new business environment. The supply chain industry is also actively using RPA software to automate mundane operations that hamper business growth. Let’s find out what the specifics of RPA technology adoption are for logistics companies.
RPA in supply chain and logistics
Logistics managers deal with lots of data scattered across different software systems — TMSs, warehouse management systems (WMSs), enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, customer relationship management (CRM) systems — as well as across Excel spreadsheets and paper documentation. Obviously, there are many monotonous copy-and-paste and drop-and-drag tasks that take time but don’t add any value to the company.
And workers tend to make many mistakes while performing such high-volume tasks, as they may easily get distracted or tired. RPA software bots can unburden employees from most of this routine work and can perform it much faster 24/7. In the meantime, employees can have more time for managing exceptions and dealing with customers’ issues.
RPA benefits for logistics companies
The benefits you get thanks to robotic process automation solutions depend on the type of business processes you choose to automate. However, there are some general perks of this technology.
- Shift from data entry to strategic planning. By automating logistics management and routine tasks, your management teams get a chance to focus on important strategic goals related to customer service, marketing, and sales.
- Satisfied clients. Automatic control in logistics allows you to process orders and deliveries quickly. Thus, customers can place more orders than usual and receive them faster. RPA software may help you exceed your customers’ expectations and satisfy the needs of even the most demanding customers.
- Productive workforce. With RPA technology, you can give your employees more time for unlocking potential and encourage them to contribute to your business. Plus, if you allow your employees to make decisions that benefit the company, your employees will be more loyal.
- Error-free document management. Imagine eliminating all typos and all other human errors from your documentation for good. Sounds alluring, doesn’t it? Then consider this: software bots usually achieve 100 percent accuracy in extracting, entering, creating, and processing data.
- Fast development and deployment. On average, developing and deploying RPA solutions for processes of medium complexity take much less time than developing standalone applications and systems. This is mainly because one software bot is built to perform one task or process. And even if your company’s processes grow and you implement more and more bots (there are companies that use more than 50), the implementation is gradual and doesn’t require huge investments at once.
Implementing RPA software makes your business environment more customer-centric. And as you free your employees from the routine, you make space for growth.
Common use cases
RPA is most applicable to the following logistics processes:
Order fulfillment is an example of a time-consuming process that looks the same in many supply chain organizations. Software bots can process one order in two minutes instead of the 20 minutes a human would spend on the same task. An RPA-powered system can receive an order from a customer, check the stock, and invoice the customer via email if the products ordered are in fact in stock.
Thus, companies can process more orders in a working day and even beyond working hours. Software bots can also migrate data between different supply chain systems like TMSs, WMSs, and ERPs.
Shipment scheduling and tracking
Composing feasible and accurate shipment plans constitutes a big part of a logistics company’s responsibilities. Intermodal shipments that involve more than one means of transportation may require even more accuracy than, for instance, truckload shipments.
RPA technology can take charge of shipment scheduling and tracking. Bots can quickly fill out documents, assign orders to the right transport, and track shipments from departure to destination.
Scheduling appointments with shippers, receivers, and carriers can also be a tedious task, with many back-and-forth emails for confirming or declining appointments.
You can integrate RPA software into your transport management system or yard management system to schedule appointments and send timely emails to all participants. Plus, software bots can notify participants of upcoming appointments and status updates.
Logistics is often associated with piles of documents like BOLs that ensure the receiver gets all the requested products and proofs of delivery that prove to the shipping company that the receiver got the requested products within the requested time frame.
You can create bots responsible for retrieving data from all incoming and outgoing electronic documents. Bots can even open email attachments, identify document types, extract critical information, and move documents to the company’s database. With RPA, it becomes unnecessary to manually rekey data from one document to another or send dozens of repetitive emails to shippers, receivers, and carriers.
You can create separate bots for performing routine and consistent processes in your logistics organization. You can even make them smarter by empowering them with artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML). These technologies can transform your bots into voice assistants or chatbots that can make certain decisions themselves, such as sending an additional explanatory email to an unsatisfied customer.
Real-world examples of RPA adoption
Many modern companies have already started reaping the benefits of robotic process automation in logistics. Below are a few examples that prove this.
Redwood Logistics, a third-party logistics (3PL) company, is using RPA to automate the following processes:
- Retrieving documents from emails
- Updating statuses in multiple software systems
- Tracking and tracing shipments
- Sending exception notifications
- Determining the estimated time of arrival (ETA) for shipments
Before implementing RPA technology, Redwood Logistics employees had to manually track thousands of monthly shipments. This process was extremely time-consuming and did not add value for the company. Manual shipment management was also error-prone and if, for example, a parcel was lost on the way, managers had to take reactive measures to deal with the issue. RPA allows for making proactive decisions that safeguard the company from some obvious bottlenecks.
RPA enables the company’s managers to provide customers with full shipment visibility, freeing up the workforce for more customer-related tasks that help to increase the efficiency of the logistics operations and improve customer satisfaction.
RPA adoption yielded the following outcomes for Redwood Logistics:
- 55 percent increase in revenue within 24 months after adoption
- Increase in monthly shipments from 3,500 to more than 12,000
PITT OHIO is a transportation company offering less-than-truckload, truckload, and other supply chain solutions in the US Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions.
The company’s customer service representatives (CSRs) had to process many customer requests manually by re-entering shipment details into multiple software systems while manually logging in to each system.
Integration of RPA software helped the company automate most manual business processes. Software bots now can extract shipment details from incoming emails and add them to all the company’s systems in several minutes.
PITT OHIO gained the following results thanks to logistics automation system:
- 95 percent productivity increase of CSRs
- 100 percent accurate invoice creation
- 100 percent elimination of routine processes that CSRs perform
In both Redwood Logistics and PITT OHIO, RPA adoption resulted in a huge productivity improvement. And to achieve similar results, you don’t have to automate all manual processes in your organization at once. Even a few bots can make a difference and boost your employee and customer satisfaction.
If you feel inclined to give RPA technology a try, you need to figure out which type of implementation to choose: ready-made or custom.
Pros and cons of off-the-shelf RPA solutions
Generic ready-made RPA solutions are always an option if you want to try out this technology and see if it fits your needs.
Top players in the RPA world are UiPath, BluePrism, Automation Anywhere, and Kofax. But there are also some RPA solutions for the logistics domain only. We’ll analyze three logistics automation software vendors.
Shipamax offers intelligent automation software empowered with AI to automate data entry into TMS or ERP systems for freight forwarders. For instance, Shipamax’s software solution can extract data from emails and transfer it to an ERP in an instant.
- Can extract all types of data from emails, email attachments, scans, and photos
- Able to process large volumes of specialized logistics documents
- Advanced performance thanks to integration of AI and ML technologies
- Automation tools only for logistics processes related to data entry
- Requires in-house IT department to process integration with internal systems that Shipamax doesn’t support
- Covers the needs of freight forwarders only
- No free trial and only possibility to book a free demo
RPA Labs is a full-service RPA for shipping and logistics services. The company provides three types of bots: response bots (chatbots), document bots, and workflow bots. Each bot type has subcategories and can be customized for the needs of a particular logistics company. RPA Labs also serves a variety of industries within the logistics domain like trucking, intermodal shipping, 3PL, and freight forwarding.
- Wide functionality including data entry, shipment tracking, and invoicing
- Each software bot has an embedded library with logistics terminology to quickly process specific supply chain data
- Catalog of software bots for diverse logistics purposes
- No need for internal tech support to maintain bots
- Empowered with AI and ML technologies for performing more intelligent tasks
- Only pre-built and pre-trained software bots with limited customization capabilities
- No possibility for a free software trial (the price for the solution depends on the number of requested software bots)
- Bot catalog offers more than 20 bots, but that may not be enough to cover all the needs of midsize and large logistics organizations
The Gleematic AI provides software solutions for the logistics industry with the help of RPA, AI, and ML technologies. Gleematic also serves a few other industries, but logistics remains its focus. It offers multilingual document processing software as well as solutions for efficient order and shipment processing. Gleematic’s software bots can be programmed to monitor data in real time and provide operators with timely notifications on all updates.
- Coverage of a wide range of logistics business needs from accurate shipping to error-free documentation and inventory monitoring
- Enhanced with image recognition and text analytics technologies
- Predictive capabilities (e.g. stock replenishment forecasts for peak seasons)
- Possibility to have a free software trial
- Annual fee of $1,332 even if you don’t need all the services the company offers
- According to user reviews, Gleematic AI has issues accurately processing scans of documents with handwritten text
- May require support and maintenance from an internal IT team to enable more advanced capabilities (e.g. embedding Python script into the system to enhance performance)
If niche RPA for logistics won’t fit your needs, you can always consider more extensive solutions like those we’ve mentioned at the beginning of this section (UiPath, BluePrism, Kofax). However, you should also take into account the possible pitfalls of these solutions according to users:
- UiPath and BluePrism are rather pricey, with BluePrism being even more expensive than UiPath
- BluePrism’s interface is a bit outdated, while Kofax’s isn’t convenient
- UiPath often crashes when processing big files
- BluePrism’s users think that this system lacks flexibility for real-time data processing
- UiPath’s users believe that software should have more cognitive capabilities for their software to accurately process scanned images
These are only a few of the customer reviews that might impact your choice. After a daunting analysis of all the pros and cons of ready-made solutions, you might think that building a custom RPA solution could be your best investment. Proceed by reading the following section to find out more about custom software development.
Things to consider when developing custom RPA software
Developing a custom RPA may take more time and money than integrating a pre-built software solution. Still, there’s no ready-made service that will offer you the same level of flexibility and adaptability as a custom solution. We’ve compiled for you a few simple steps to take before developing your own software bot.
Step 1. Set clear expectations for RPA adoption
Going for RPA and other automation technologies only because it’s trendy isn’t wise. Identify what you want to achieve with this type of software and consider if it applies to your business needs and regular workflow. An RPA solution is meant to optimize your business processes and increase your employees' efficiency. So start small and at first implement only one or two bots to perform the simplest tasks to see if this software works for you.
Step 2. Define which processes you want to automate
Analyze which manual and rules-based processes are the most time-consuming and burdensome in your company. Start with automating them to obtain quick and tangible results (as Redwood Logistics did). To help you with choosing the right processes for automation, here are a few questions you can ask yourself:
Let’s have a look at what stands behind these questions.
- What kind of process is this? Identify core time-consuming and monotonous processes in your organization like report generation, order processing, shipment tracking, and folder and file management.
- Is this process rules-based? Simply put, rules-based processes can be referred to as “If” statements, meaning that “If X happens THEN do Y.” A certain action triggers the next action (and so on) until the process is complete.
- How complex is the process? Define the process complexity by the steps a human takes to complete it. Basically, if your employees have to open up to four systems or applications and take less than 50 steps, then this process would be considered small. If a process takes more than 50 steps and more than four applications or services, then it’s a medium-complexity process. Large processes require more than four applications and more than 100 steps.
- Do operators often have to manage exceptions to this process?
You can overview how your employees handle routine processes and see how often certain exceptions to these processes occur. This way you’ll define which processes will still require a lot of human intervention even when automated and which won’t.
Step 3. Consider enhancing your software with AI and ML in the future
Plain RPA software can be rather straightforward and limited. Enhancing it with AI and ML capabilities opens more opportunities for your company. For example, such empowered software can process handwritten documents, analyze images and photos, answer your customers’ typical queries, and unburden your support team. You can opt for building RPA with AI and ML technologies right away and even not wait for future software updates.
Step 4. Look for a long-term development partner
Digitization is a fast-evolving phenomenon, especially when it comes to technologies that can perform tasks instead of humans. Consider long-term cooperation with your development team so they can support, maintain, and improve your software in a timely manner. This way, you’ll stay relevant on the market and keep up with modern supply chain demands.
At Yalantis, we always offer long-term support for our clients after the development and deployment stages. Plus, the logistics domain is one of the core areas of our expertise, so our team knows well all the pain points and peculiarities of supply chain operations. You can rely on us for digital transformation of your business. We’re eager to help you streamline all inefficient logistics processes with advanced automation tools.