Industries in 2018 are being hit by a double-whammy: trying to save costs in an increasingly competitive marketplace; and attempting to satisfy customers who want things faster, better and cheaper than ever before. To be ahead of the game, businesses need to be fast, but without employing too many people (humans are expensive, after all). The answer? Business automation. Replace some people with robots and you get a quicker, cheaper, more accurate and more productive workforce. The human employees whose jobs are now being done by robots are now free to do higher-level work, whilst the repetitive, laborious jobs go to the robots.
There are a range of ways in which technology is changing industry: Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning are just a few examples. They all allow human workers who were previously tasked with monotonous, labor-intensive jobs, to be freed up by RPA to perform higher-level tasks. And the customer who wants an on-demand service with an instant response, anytime, anywhere, is satisfied.
Here are the top five industries set to be transformed by business automation:
Nowhere could give a more tangible example of how automation is impacting on business than the manufacturing sector. With giants like Amazon now using robots in the warehouses as a matter of course, companies who do not embrace this technology will soon be finding themselves completely left behind.
Automation in the world of manufacturing is nothing new; it’s been commonplace since the 1970s. However, factories today would be unrecognisable to a 1970s picker or stacker, as advances in technology have allowed production to reach a whole new level of efficiency. Amazon now uses collaborative robots – i.e. “cobots” in its fulfilment centers to work alongside humans. Products are stacked on shelves which are couriered around the warehouse atop a small robot, which delivers empty shelves to human employees to fill, or the right items to pickers to pack. The whole process is managed by software which keeps the robots from colliding.
These robots are a key example of how RPA is impacting on industry more widely: people are learning to work alongside robots, keeping the human face of a company whilst delivering the efficient customer service that 21st century consumers expect. And, they are bringing costs down for businesses; those that fail to embrace this technology will find themselves losing their competitive edge.
Another area in which business automation is transforming the landscape is the world of banking and finance. Technologies in finance (or Fintech) have been on the rise since the financial crash of 2008, which caused people to question the existing top-down order of our centralized banking system. Cryptocurrencies, blockchain and chatbots emerged, cutting costs, improving efficiencies, reducing fraud and providing the consumer with a more transparent, democratic, accessible service.
Banks like Atom now provide digital-only solutions, including mortgages, and online investment managers such as Nutmeg have opened up the world of stocks and shares to people for as little as £130, from their smartphone. In financial services, robots are able to handle the huge volume of queries that are routine: registrations, data, the customer interface. For firms like Nutmeg, this is crucial: they are not spending the money for a broker to sit down with a customer and collect this data. That’s all done by the app. This frees up the skilled humans to deal with the important tasks, like making the actual investments on behalf of the client. The cost savings are passed along to the consumer, who gets to watch their stocks and shares rise and fall each day from the comfort of their own home.
Cognitive banking is a growing field, as the industry realizes the potential of truly personalized banking. By combining cognitive computing with banking analytics, banks can tailor experiences to an individual customer. IBM is spearheading this technology, but take-up is slower than might be hoped, sure to banks focusing on operational efficiencies. However, with time, it is envisioned that the future of banking will be fully supported by cognitive technology, with customers able to order a new credit card at the touch of a button, rather than having to click through several links to find the correct phone number to dial. Cognitive computing also provides financial services with the opportunity to predict a customer’s needs, proactively recommending a personalized loan, or suggesting a money transfer before an upcoming purchase.
The essence of why business automation is now taking off is because industries are recognising how best to get humans and robots to complement each other. This could not be more true than in the insurance sector, which relies on the accurate evaluation of data.
Robots are great at acquiring, processing, and arranging data — as long as it is typical data. And this is what is key for the insurance industry. Chatbots can deal with average customer queries, generate quotes and are accessible 24/7. But you need a human for those tricky edge cases which are atypical: perhaps a fraudulent claim or one which is contested. RPA frees up the people who previously would have been dealing with mundane, time-consuming administrative tasks and gets them to work on the nuanced cases which computers find so difficult. Meanwhile, Machine Learning is allowing computers to process huge volumes of data, spotting patterns to enable the industry to run more efficiently and root out problems.
The insurance sector has not traditionally embraced technology, relying on outdated, clunky software, call centers and way too much paper. But as consumers become more keen and seek digital solutions to many of their needs via their phone, insurers have had to play catch up. We can all be hopeful that those painstaking phone calls to insurers are a thing of the past. Clients will no longer have to repeat their story over and over again to multiple agents. Insurance firms are getting better at using technology to store this data, improving the customer experience. And consumers are enjoying being able to compare insurance costs, find the right policy, make a claim and even track their car repair, all at the touch of a button.
What other opportunities lay ahead for insurance firms who embrace business automation? The Internet of Things (IoT) offers huge potential for providers, in terms of wearable health trackers, or turning phone notifications off automatically once someone is driving.
The telecommunications industry has become increasingly virtualized over the past ten years, and is now embracing automation. RPA can help to manage network functions, boosting efficiencies and allowing functions to happen in real-time. RPA also helps detect security breaches, with robots much better equipped than humans to spot and resolve any glitches. Furthermore, Machine Learning technology has dramatically cut the response time when a tower goes down, leaving customers with no service. ML now allows the towers to communicate with the control room about any failure, meaning that engineers can get right on their way to fix the problem.
Telecoms firms are also benefiting from AI in customer service, using chatbots to deal with basic consumer queries and to route more complex calls through to the right person. This cuts queues and drives efficiency, improving the consumer experience. Customers want to be happy and connected, with fast, efficient service. They do not want to be on hold with a call center. By using chatbots, telecoms companies are cutting their own costs by reducing the need for call centers, and improving retention.
Energy & Utilities
Energy and utility industries have not been the fastest to get on board with business automation, but they are getting there. These industries rely on the processing of enormous amounts of data, and here, AI comes into its own. The US and UK National Grids are both working on AI projects to make sense of this data, looking at past events to detect weak spots and potential surges. The aim is to build an ‘autonomous grid’, which will be able to respond seamlessly to events on its own.
Robots are also taking on inspection and reporting roles, gathering network data to increase the safety and reliability of existing infrastructure. It is now possible to take wall sensor readings from inside live gas mains by using robots, helping utility companies plan upgrade work more accurately and cost-effectively.
ULC Robotics have been working in the sector for a number of years, developing robots for engineering purposes. For example, their cast iron joint sealing robot (or ‘CISBOT’) is used by National Grid US and Baltimore Gas (amongst others) to repair old parts of the infrastructure and reduce harmful methane emissions.
Automation is now gathering pace, and while no-one would want to see humans replaced by robots, exciting challenges lay ahead as we learn to work alongside our automated friends. Ultimately, business automation allows companies to save money, while delivering faster, more accurate, round-the-clock service to customers who want things cheaper and quicker than ever before. The future for industry hinges on how we embrace these changes whilst still keeping our human edge.
Market Research, RapidValue