Software Bots Multiply to Cope With ‘Stretched’ Resources
Companies plan to leverage software robots in the months ahead, as many grapple with strained resources and uncertain markets.
Known as robotic process automation, or bots, the software is typically designed to handle a range of routine office tasks, such as processing payroll data or expense reports, and fielding call-center queries. More advanced bots can review more complex paperwork, including legal documents and contracts.
Companies typically outsource development of bots to third-party software firms. There are also RPA platforms designed to enable businesses to make their own custom-made bots.
Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. plans to accelerate its use of RPA over the next several months, said Mike Maresca, the drugstore chain’s global chief technology officer. The aim, he said, is to make operations more resilient to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, while adapting to changing customer needs, among other goals.
Mr. Maresca said the company has already deployed bots in several business areas, including finance, human resources, supply chain and information technology, using an RPA platform developed by Automation Anywhere Inc.
The bots have helped streamline time-intensive processes, enabling the company to handle a growing volume of online orders and customer queries about Covid-19, he said.
Throughout the pandemic, he added, bots helped increase employee productivity and morale by reducing workload.
Junaid Ahmed, corporate vice president of finance at Applied Materials Inc., said the company last year began using bots to automate areas of financial accounting, aiming to free up staff from thousands of hours of repetitive number crunching.
The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company, which makes gear for semiconductors, has experienced strong growth, but “key support functions have been stretched” during the pandemic, Mr. Ahmed said. To bolster productivity, he added, the company is aiming to have 255 bots in place for a range of workplace processes by the end of February. They are making them in-house using a bot-making platform created by UiPath Inc.
Nearly 80% of some 440 global corporate executives surveyed by Deloitte LLP in mid 2020 said they had implemented some form of robotic process automation in the past year. Roughly 15% said they plan to in the next three years. The survey included chief information officers, heads of automation, IT directors and other executives.
Fred Havemeyer, a senior software analyst at Macquarie Group, said the pandemic has acted like a business-resiliency test for many companies, accelerating the adoption of digital technologies, and especially smart automation.
He expects robotic process automation to be “an enterprise priority within the wave of cloud software spend we see coming.”
Gartner Inc., an information-technology research and consulting firm, expects worldwide spending on enterprise IT to grow 6.2% this year, to $3.9 trillion, compared with 2020. Spending declined last year, dropping by 3.2%, as companies redirected spending to mission-critical technology and services during the pandemic, the firm said in a report Monday.
Spending will be led by enterprise software, which is projected to grow 8.8% to roughly $505 billion—much of it focused on RPA and other forms of automation, the report said.
“The use of RPA increases our ability to react quickly to changes in market conditions,” said Michael Roseman, senior vice president of customer operations at IT services management company OneSource Virtual Inc.
In March, the company was able to quickly build number-crunching bots designed to help corporate customers process new tax deferrals and credits set out in federal Covid-19 relief measures under the Cares Act, Mr. Roseman said. “The changes were announced on Friday and we moved our solution into production on Monday,” he said.
Max Cheprasov, chief automation officer at global ad agency Dentsu Inc., said his goal is to provide a virtual assistant for every employee within the next five years.
To do that, he said, the company plans to use a simplified computer-code platform, developed by RPA maker UiPath, that enables workers to build their own custom-made bots with only basic training.
“We see that between 30% and 60% of what people currently do manually in the front office can be fully automated,” Mr. Cheprasov said.
“Putting these kinds of tools in the hands of employees directly, instead of the software engineers or IT teams, removes the unnecessary bureaucracy and technical roadblocks,” he added.