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In September 2017, technology research and advisory firm Information Services Group (ISG) made its mark in the robotics market by staging what it claims was the first head-to-head administrative processing battle between a robot and a human in front of a live audience.
A robotic process automation (RPA) software bot and a human ISG adviser were both tasked with verifying the value-added tax (VAT) numbers of 400 companies. They had to log onto a website, type in VAT numbers and country, check if those numbers were valid, and then confirm names and addresses.
After 56 minutes and seven seconds, the robot had completed all 400 checks, the human just 77.
Such automation would open up real opportunities for procurement.
“In the world of automation, RPA is actually the least intelligent of the pack in that it can’t make decisions, it can only work based on rules,” says ISG RPA and automation evangelist Homan Haghighi.
“But this actually makes it really valuable to businesses and procurement teams as it can rid humans of boring, repetitive, administrative tasks, by handing them over to a robot.”
Some functions are already exploring the opportunities such technology presents.
Over the last year, shipping giant Maersk and its head of procurement automation and analytics, Lars Andersson, has been focusing its attention on Project Holger, a bot which his team is teaching to perform rules-based supply chain tasks.
“Holger works 24 hours a day at a speed that is much greater than any human is capable of,” he said in an interview back in June.
“For example, the task of optimising data in catalogue price points would take a human around four hours; Holger can now perform the same task in just nine minutes.”
RPA bots can be trained to do any process as long as two fundamental rules are incorporated, says Haghighi.
Any data and information the robot needs to process is in a digital format and that the process is rules-based and prescriptive.
“As long as a process fits these two characteristics then RPA can automate any process in the world,” he explains.
Raising purchase orders, running requests for proposals, and onboarding suppliers are just some of the administrative tasks that a bot could automate in procurement. All the bot would need is access to systems that already exist.
“Bots work in the exact same environment as a human in that they have a laptop, keyboard, mouse and workstation,” he says.
“The only difference is that the environment the bot works in is virtual.”
“For example, if a procurement executive needs to raise a PO, then he or she needs to launch the PO app, navigate it and raise the PO. The bot does the exact same thing.”
As the numbers demonstrate, RPA has the capacity to complete tasks much faster than a human, something that Maersk’s Andersson believes will help reshape the future role of procurement professionals.
“Where robots are taking over day-to-day tasks, it means buyers and category managers can do more and increase the impact they have on the business,” he explains.
“Yet, we are also more likely to see people from other specialisms joining procurement, as there will be a growing need for a range of specialist skills.
"In our team, we have recently hired a data scientist and a physicist because of the unique skills they bring to the team.”
With the promise of freeing up time for procurement to focus on value-adding exercises, this technology could be the one that really is a game-changer for the function.
This article is a piece of independent writing by a member of Procurement Leaders’ content team.