25 June, 2024

To automate or not to automate…

16 February, 2018

Based on the amount of coverage received in the industrial press and beyond, one would expect that the topic of robotics and the wider automation landscape is what most companies are busy talking about and even looking to deploy, if indeed they haven’t done so to some extent. The attraction is easy to see: the potential for greater accuracy, speed and agility, less waste and more profitability. We are even seeing developments in collaborative robots, or cobots, that are able to work alongside human workers to further enhance the whole production process. And within the wider Industry 4.0 concept of end-to-end integration and connectivity, one would think the whole technology area simply cannot be ignored – even if a sizeable initial investment is required before the return on investment and resultant technological benefits really start to kick in.

However, it would appear things aren’t quite as straightforward as one might be led to believe. According to a recent OnePoll survey for Ultima – the provider of on-premise and cloud IT infrastructure and managed service solutions – more than half (57%) of the UK’s SMEs fear big business’s use of robotic process automation will help to drive them out of business in the next five years. This seems like a logical concern if the SMEs themselves weren’t looking to invest in similar technology, but the survey’s findings suggest that some 10% believe automating repetitive, time-consuming tasks is not important to their success.

Nevertheless, the survey found that two-thirds of businesses do want to use robotic process automation. Some 65% of companies reported that they either plan to or already automate repetitive, time-consuming tasks. Rather than manufacturing and engineering, however, the financial services sector leads the charge, where more than 80% of companies either plan to or already automate at least some business processes.

Scott Dodds, CEO of Ultima, believes using robotic process automation (RPA) will give SMEs competitive advantage and if they don’t embrace it they will be left behind. “It’s not surprising 57% of UK SMEs fear big business use of it will put them out of business, as until now the technology has been out of the reach of SMEs and was only available to the large enterprises that could afford it. But this has changed…”

The survey found that 77% of respondents want to use RPA to automate mundane, transactional tasks, with 56% saying freeing up staff time to focus on more strategic work was a key driver for using RPA.

“Importantly, RPA doesn’t necessarily mean job losses,” continued Dodds. Research by McKinsey (‘Thank you for being late’ by Thomas L Friedman, referencing McKinsey’s 16 in-depth case studies) has shown clearly that employees welcomed the technology because they hated the mundane tasks that the machines now do, and it relieved them of the rising pressure of work. “We call our software robots ‘virtual workers’ as they are there to work alongside humans to do the work they don’t need or want to do,” said Dodds. “They allow SMEs to free up their staff to spend more time on strategic and creative projects that will give them a competitive advantage, while also improving productivity. In the longer term, as Professor Leslie Willcocks at the LSE says, ‘it will mean people will have more interesting work’.”

Indeed, RPA can increase productivity by reducing the time taken to undertake the more mundane tasks. It can also result in greater accuracy and compliance by removing human error and can provide greater security of data and information. With a raft of business and operational advantages at their disposal, it would be encouraging to see even more manufacturing and engineering companies taking a closer look at the benefits RPA can bring to their businesses. That all-important competitive edge could be there for the taking.

Ed Holden


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