A new era of intelligent automation

Business Chief speaks to five executives from Blue Yonder, Red Hat, GE Digital, Accenture and UiPath to discuss the future of intelligent automation

|Apr 23|magazine32 min read

Those participating in the roundtable include:

AD: Alan Duncan, Senior Director of Industry Strategy (Manufacturing), EMEA at Blue Yonder

MF: Massimo Ferrari, Consulting Product Manager at Red Hat

MW: Matt Wells, Vice President, Digital Product Management at GE Digital

SC: Simon Coombs, Industry X Digital Manufacturing & Operations Lead for Accenture UK

RT: Renzo Taal, SVP & Managing Director, UiPath EMEA

Please could you define intelligent automation, and what it can provide organisations?

AD: Intelligent automation can enhance operations and provide supply chain efficiency, helping to predict problems before they arise and increase the ability to navigate disruptions even months in advance. This puts organisations in a much better position to meet demands than ever before, with the long-term goal being to build a fully autonomous supply chain that is capable of identifying and resolving problems without any human intervention.

MF: Intelligent Automation is a relatively new term, and as such, it's often framed in very different ways, sometimes called ‘cognitive automation’. It's used to describe the intersection of automation and AI-powered decision-making technologies.

The main benefit offered by intelligent automation is the ability to actually perform actions based on data-driven recommendations, as opposed to just reporting a problem. 

MW: From proactive analysis to guiding operator response, modern intelligent automation technologies use the IoT’s connected systems, layered with new apps to help companies create and maintain revenue streams and improve operations. Companies around the world are blending combinations of digital capabilities and industrial assets to drive productivity and efficiency across an organisation or environment. In addition, intelligent automation technologies can help companies to reduce risks and costs by leveraging the data within the organisation to avoid downtime and facilitate predictive maintenance.

SC: The role of automation has evolved across industries in the last decade, with Robotic Process Automation (RPA) accelerating the fulfilment of basic, repetitive tasks that require no human judgement. Intelligent automation is the next natural advancement of automation capabilities; by tightly integrating with AI and machine learning analytics, software platforms and models can learn, adapt and evolve to make business critical decisions – much like a human can.

RT: Intelligent automation is Robotic Process Automation (RPA) amplified by Artificial Intelligence (AI). Simply, intelligent automation unlocks potential by allowing for the automation of non-rule based processes. The benefits include improved efficiency, business continuity and process resilience all while reducing human error, creating scale and increasing both customer and employee satisfaction. 

What are the current trends when it comes to intelligent automation?

MF: Surprisingly, while AI has been used for quite some time in different areas of business analysis or IT, automation is a relatively recent adoption.

One of the major trends is the adoption of intelligent automation for response and remediation use cases. Take IT Security as an example, which is an area where automated response and remediation is growing. AI is well-established in this area, such as in the form of tools like threat analysis systems, but the use of automation to perform remediation actions on a threat identified by one of these technologies is a fairly new concept. 

This is often intentional and reflects the maturity level of many enterprise organisations and the fact that AI and automation are orthogonal opportunities.

MW: Machine learning and analytics technologies are at the forefront of current technologies that are facilitating intelligent automation. Fourth generation HMI/SCADA can add a layer of proactive analysis to deliver predictive intelligent alarming that makes it possible to evolve from being reactionary to predicting when an event will occur and taking proactive steps to remediate a pending situation. Machine learning can help to reduce the ‘noise’ that is inherent in system deployments today. This technology allows companies to use raw data to derive intelligence that will improve efficiency, reduce unscheduled downtime, and decrease process risk by providing information to the right operators in context, at the right time and place.

SC: Businesses are increasingly scaling the use of automation from specific functions to their wider business strategy, with the particular benefits of intelligent automation now a key objective. To enable this, we are seeing many businesses take a step back and place greater focus on the quality of their data and how it informs their foundational framework for intelligent automation. Some of the key capabilities this framework gives businesses include intelligent virtual agents such as bots and chatbots, which can be used for all manner of functions such as customer service, the IT helpdesk and logistics. As businesses become more advanced with intelligent automation, we are seeing their solutions become highly intuitive, whether predicting events and recommending reactive strategies, or automatically resolving queries with no need for human input.

RT: As with many trends in 2021, intelligent automation is being further driven by the pandemic and the need to fully digitise workflows that can no longer be undertaken by teams in physical offices. 

For example, online transactions have increased, as consumers and businesses continue to order more products and services via the Web. Demand for cloud services has risen, in part because of the need to support more e-commerce transactions and home-based workers. More than ever, we need to combine thinking (AI) and doing (RPA) to complete tasks and support employees working remotely. 

As this happens, we will see workers embrace this change and start to demand more of automation – perhaps even becoming citizen developers and building their own intelligent automations. Moreover, these automations will become even more powerful with autonomous automation. To put this another way, we’ll see robots managing robots. They will be unattended – capable of monitoring and handling themselves. 

How has the intelligent automation market been impacted by COVID-19?

AD: As organisations navigate through uncertain times, intelligent automation has played an increasingly crucial role, helping to make key decisions around everything from stock planning and management right the way through to shipping routes and price points. Ultimately automation has and will continue to help organisations to get ahead of the game: quickly responding to changes in consumer behavior by helping to make intelligent and profitable decisions. Those who don’t adopt the technology risk falling behind the competition, especially during unpredictable periods.

MF: This pandemic is a time of unprecedented challenge that affected all of us in many different ways. It urged many organisations to change, from transitioning to a work-from-home productivity model to accelerating their adoption of public cloud services.

These are two examples where automation technologies became essential to cope with the scale and urgency of the demand. That's why automation, in general, moved from being an opportunity, discussed in technical groups, to an imperative at board level.

The technology evolved and is still evolving, and this is because of the new level of problems we're still trying to solve, which obviously are also driving more adoption.

MW: Now more than ever, software is mission critical for industrial companies as they meet the world’s toughest challenges with resilience, flexibility, and grit. Companies need the right tools to maintain business continuity with remote monitoring and control capabilities so they can adapt production to extreme changes in volumes and mix of products. Today’s solutions must scale from plant to enterprise-wide and then beyond the four walls to enable connected workers as well as enterprise-wide visibility both on-premise and in the cloud.

SC: COVID-19 has made intelligent automation more important than ever. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) carried out on the factory floor has evolved to become more intelligent, which was critical for maintaining business continuity whilst keeping workers protected and socially distanced.

The other dramatic shift has been in the area of supply chain, with unexpected spikes in demand for certain products and services, and a complete drop off in others. The incorporation of intelligent automation across the supply chain has been crucial to ensuring continued efficiency, by adapting with agility and forecasting future needs.

The pandemic has shifted landscapes and mindsets more generally, too, shining a light on the need for investment in digital and data to both prevent and react to seismic change. Whether it’s manufacturing, hospitality, healthcare or finance – all sectors have been given a harsh push toward digital transformation in order to survive.

RT: COVID-19 has undoubtedly impacted intelligent automation. While many organisations were already undergoing digital transformations before the pandemic hit, the rapid change in businesses practices and climate forced them to accelerate these efforts. 

Business leaders had to, and must continue to, innovate to find new ways of working, to adopt new business models and to increase efficiency in order to survive and thrive in less than favourable economic conditions. 

For many firms, intelligent automation (IA) has been the answer. Thirty-one percent of decision makers recently surveyed said their firms have increased their spending on RPA in the past three months – a key component in the landscape of IA technology

How can intelligent automation help industries navigate the global changes and challenges that are here to stay as a result of COVID-19?

AD: Within the manufacturing industry, adopting intelligent automation has made it realistic for supply chains to make recommendations and decisions without the need for human intervention. The time and human brain power saved will enable manufacturers to focus on increasing efficiency, productivity and accuracy of operations. It also helps to keep processes more robust in the event of staff turnover, so that supply chains can continue to operate efficiently if employees get sick from COVID-19 or move onto new roles, retire or leave the business.

The role intelligent automation plays in keeping one step ahead on customer buying behaviour, rather than simply responding to incidents as they occur, is crucial as manufacturers navigate their way through the pandemic. This will play a key role in ensuring supply chains are resilient enough to cope with subsequent disruptive events that could occur in the future.

MF: Automation is usually associated with IT, as a way to simplify, accelerate and reduce the cost of provisioning and configuration of services and applications. While automation proved to be very effective in those tasks, it can be used in many other areas of IT, like Network Operations, Security Analysts and Security Operations providing benefits across virtually any industry.

Intelligent automation can help organizations react faster to changes outside their control, but, once implemented as a core technology, allows people to do more with the resources they have at their disposal, overcoming the challenges of scale, of always growing digital services, complexity of a more distributed workforce and customer base and speed of changes required by market motion.

MW: As everyone has adapted to working remotely, there has been a large appetite for collaboration tools. However, most of these are IT tools, not operations technology tools, that industrial companies need to use to operate machines and continue to run and manage their business. Industrial automation technology tools allow for remote operations that promote policies like social distancing, while keeping teams safe and equipment maintained. This technology is the intersection between collaboration and enterprise productivity. 

In addition, the push to faster, more agile production applications drives industrial companies toward a more holistic view of their operations that allow them to anticipate supply chain and production disruption. They are looking for global solutions that can deliver global visibility, orchestrate the execution of all their processes, and optimize each of their assets and plants in the context of the enterprise. This involves tools that provide for Rapid Application Development (RAD), zero-downtime upgrades / updates, and deployment of self-serve analytics across assets.

Companies are also using industrial analytics to improve asset, process and people performance combining data across various data sources to rapidly identify problems, discover root causes and predict future performance. Enhanced software analytics improve quality, utilisation, productivity, and delivery of operations across the enterprise.

SC: In manufacturing and supply chain, we saw the rapid reshaping of production lines to cope with the volatile demand in the early months of the pandemic, when businesses pivoted to adapt to the sudden surge in demand, for example, for ventilators and PPE.

Elsewhere, augmented reality, IoT and advanced analytics have allowed businesses to automate and streamline where they have had to scale back or re-direct their workforce. In call centres, whether supporting retail, hospitality or healthcare, for example, intelligent automation has been put to good use by directing customers to the right department without having to go through human operators. This has enabled human counterparts to focus on the important task of dealing with customer issues in a time of particular distress.

Over the next few uncertain months and beyond the pandemic, intelligent automation is here to stay. Corporations have seen first-hand how intelligent platforms are enabling agile business. The events of the last year have shown just how important preparation and adaptability are and when integrated with the business strategy, intelligent automation not only allows for agility in crisis, but can help to prepare for future challenges that humans cannot do alone, meaning business can proactively prepare for various situations.

RT: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, organisations and healthcare institutions around the world are facing extreme challenges – from hospital backlogs to influx in demands to business continuity challenges. RPA is – and will continue to – offer relief to overwhelmed organisations, and is already being used by UiPath customers to automate processes.

Organisations across industries – including healthcare, insurance, government, retail, banking, and transportation – are using UiPath software robots to address the influx of demands brought on by COVID-19. 

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The April issue of Business Chief EMEA