Why robotic process automation (RPA) is the perfect technology for logistics

Man wearing headphones stares at computer screen

Consider the time you spend reading an email, combing through it to harvest relevant information to put into an operating system, and then taking the resulting data from the operating system to craft a response. Email is tedious and requires a significant commitment of time — time that brokers could use to cultivate relationships with customers and think strategically about business growth.

Technology is flooding the freight industry, leveraging apps to streamline singular tasks like load matching, and checking in and paying carriers — tasks that not too long ago were completed manually. The apps are coded to perform specific, limited functions, but when you consider a task like email, there’s more nuance and variation. Frankly, it’s more human.

A fast-growing technology that imitates human behavior and has taken root in the financial services and hospitality industries is slowly making its way into logistics. Robotic process automation (RPA) is an intelligent automation software that uses machine learning, natural language processing and artificial intelligence to mimic the rote tasks a human performs on a daily basis, whether it’s reading email or quoting rates. Eventually, RPA technology could provide every broker an assistant to perform lower-level tasks so they can so they can focus on high-level strategy.

“RPA is a rapid development environment, so what we can do with RPA that is different than any kind of automation in the past or robotics in the past is apply rapid development tools to fairly quickly build a bot,” said Joel McGinley, managing director at Hubtek,  a staffing and technology company based in Miami and Medellin, Colombia. “We can create a bot in less than a day depending on the complexity of the bot. That same automation, using other tools, would take maybe a month with lots of training and testing.”

RPA can integrate with any existing technology infrastructure, regardless of its sophistication or whether the multiple systems it interfaces with integrate with one another. For Amit Bhutani, sales director at Automation Anywhere, an RPA platform based out of San Jose, California, this is one of RPA’s biggest advantages.

“You tell the bots to go retrieve information from five different systems, they will do it,” Bhutani said. “Bots don’t need systems talking to each other in order to operate. Large companies might have two or three TMS systems at least, and most of the time, they don’t integrate with one another, but it does not matter to RPA. Also, users don’t need to know Java or C++, this is all user-friendly interface, drag-and-drop functionality.”

Not only can RPA be built and implemented quickly, it allows a company to grow while maintaining and enhancing the existing workforce. So RPA can be thought of as a tool for workforce optimization, rather than workforce replacement.

“Data entry can be very laborious and the human being is prone to errors, especially with high volume,” McGinley said. “A robot can handle that entry very efficiently, very quickly and never makes an error. The robot works 24 hours, 7 days a week, never asks for a raise, never has any office drama. So they’re kind of an assistant. Imagine if we could give every worker in this industry an assistant to increase their productivity.”

Companies within the logistics industry are positioned well for RPA technology, not just because they’re striving for competitive advantage, but also because of the industry’s sophisticated interdependencies. RPA can help the labor pool, particularly the new, tech-inclined generation of workers, pursue work of higher value, reducing busy work and the training it entails. The end result: greater employee satisfaction and higher retention rates for companies. RPA could also improve other areas of the industry, including shipment scheduling, inventory tracking, customer visibility and invoicing.

“RPA enables companies to offer a better quality of service while freeing up labor capacity to engage more closely with their customers” says Anubhav Saxena, Executive Vice President and Chief of Global Alliances at Automation Anywhere. “Shipping and logistic companies can now offer premium services to more customers while providing better customer satisfaction which helps raise their top line.”

McGinley says many logistics companies worry their scale won’t support a technology like RPA, but once they see the capabilities and costs of the program, the resistance dissipates. Hubtek has recently partnered with Automation Anywhere to make automation more cost-accessible to logistics companies.

While Automation Anywhere has been innovating its business for 16 years and has deployed 1.8 million bots, Hubtek is one of Automation Anywhere’s first partners in transportation. Utilizing a partnership like this prevents companies from taking on the cost of licensing, so $10 million-$30 million companies can compete with billion-dollar companies that can invest heavily in technology.