July 31, 2019

The Potential of Robotics Process Automation for Shipping Perishable Goods

Written by Garret Weigel | Supply Chain

In part 1, we introduced robotics process automation (RPA) and how it can provide value to industries such as banking, financial services, human resources, and transportation. In this post, we’ll speak more specifically to how RPA can improve the supply chain.


RPA is an emerging technology used in many industries as a means of expediting processes and bringing greater efficiencies into operations. It is widely used in financial operations, customer services, and elsewhere where time-consuming work requires manual intervention. Supply chain logistics may very well be the next industry that RPA penetrates.


RPA is a different genre of robotics. It’s robotics without a physical robot. RPA utilizes artificial intelligence (AI) to learn from structured and unstructured data. It employs algorithms that put machine learning to work to do tasks that a human ordinarily performs. Ideally, RPA could have many applications in the shipment of perishables, since numerous laborious processes are usually involved.


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These include documentation, logging data, and preparing an aggregation of such data for regulatory compliance. These tasks may include customs documentation as well as routing bills of lading and other data occurring throughout the extended supply chain associated with a complete transportation management system.


Recall Madness

The shipment of food, perishables, and other temperature-controlled goods is often subject to the dreadful work required of a recall. Recalls happen every day and RPA could be very instrumental in displacing some of the required labor involved in managing these issues in the food and cold-chain environment.


Oded Karev is the vice president and head of advanced process automation for NICE, a leading firm that develops RPA for many applications in different industries. "RPA generally takes processes and automates them," he explains. "Then the technology looks at a process where someone may populate a form online, and then other systems are populated according to the data entered. With RPA, there's no need for a human to be involved. All the data is there."


For the shipment of goods, particularly food and other perishables, recalls can complicate the extended supply chain. Recalls may require definitive action. Others within the supply chain must get activated to begin a cumbersome process of tracking the product through the extended supply chain and then precipitate the recall. While RPA is not used extensively in this scenario yet, it likely could.


"Someone needs to feed in the data," says Karev. "How is the data cascaded through the system? Maybe RPA has a value there, maybe not. We need to see the case studies for that. But intuitively I wouldn't say that this is a process primed for automation.”


RPA for Food Quality and Safety

Indirectly, RPA may help improve food quality and safety by enabling these products to arrive in a timely fashion to avoid spoilage. While this function may be indirect, the foodservice industry needs help to ensure that they're in compliance and well documented, and that their product moves swiftly. This is where RPA can likely assist.


"There are going to be suppliers and transportation companies that will have processes where time is sensitive," says Waqqas Mahmood, director of advanced technology, Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP. He adds that, for example, if the food company sends an invoice, it must be paid within 24 hours or else they won't ship the product out of the warehouse to its destination.


"If you have an automated processor to tackle that process, it alleviates those delays," he notes. "Plus it takes care of your call center volume. What are they going to do if they don't get paid? They're going to pick up the phone and call you. Now you have a call center that's taking a lot of these calls that could be mitigated by robotics.”


In an article for the Singapore Institute of Purchasing and Materials Management (SIPMM), Karl Lee Ecijan begins by laying out the potential of RPA for logistics. His vision will undergo a growing embrace in the near future for the shipment of goods of all types. Perishables and temperature-controlled goods stand to benefit from RPA.


Says Ecijan: "Suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors should consider capitalizing on process automation. Robotics Process Automation or RPA [is] being introduced for warehouse modernization. RPA is a software technology that allows the business to automate low-level tasks in the future, as technology improves."


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