A transportation manufacturer used RPA to bridge the gap between a physical robot and its human “coworkers,” saving over $100,000 annually in labor costs for one process alone.
When a client in the transportation manufacturing industry wanted to implement Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to automate some of their processes, Stratascale’s intelligent automation expert Dr. Don Thomas delivered. After touring the client’s facilities, Dr. Thomas uncovered a pain point for the organization: when a paint spraying robot failed, it experienced an average downtime of two hours and backed up production by 100 units. Dr. Thomas diligently searched to find the source of pain, and after making a diagnosis, he crafted an RPA remedy.
The resulting RPA solution replaced the need for an employee to constantly monitor the machine and led to what Dr. Thomas defines as both “green-dollar” (tangible, quantitative) and “blue-dollar” (intangible, qualitative) return on investment (ROI) for the organization. The green-dollar benefits include around $120,000 a year in savings; the blue-dollar benefits include improved employee satisfaction and work culture. Expertise is vital to ensuring accurate diagnosis and maximizing one’s investment in RPA.
We define RPA as “a software technology that interacts with systems on the front-end at the user interface level to automate well-defined, repetitive tasks humans normally undertake manually.”
The primary benefits of RPA include saving time, saving money, and reducing errors. These benefits feed into one another. Reducing errors can save time and money, increased savings can go towards more RPA to save more time and increase consistency, and saving time can enable employees to have greater consistency and create revenue in non-RPA work.
On top of these core benefits, both the green-dollar and the blue-dollar ROI are equally important to consider in an RPA engagement, as they bring immense value to the business. Green-dollar and blue-dollar benefits both derive from RPA’s primary benefits—for example, a reduction in hours of labor directly leads to saving both time and money, and it indirectly leads to a reduction in errors.
“If they’re just looking at money, then they’re missing out on half of it.” — Dr. Thomas on green-dollar and blue-dollar ROI
Out of many successful RPA implementations, one in particular stands out as Dr. Thomas’ favorite. The Fortune 500 vehicle manufacturer was looking to learn more about RPA and how they could use it to automate some of their processes.
Dr. Thomas describes how he and the organization first laid the foundation for RPA: “We created a Centralized CoE [Center of Excellence] where each line of business was a part of it and had a champion to represent them.” He emphasized the value of governance: “When you work with a new client, anyone that’s looking at intelligent automation or RPA, it’s sort of like Christmas. We want to jump in there and open all our presents and get all the fun stuff. But no one thinks about how first you’ve got to set up the tree, wrap the presents. That’s what the CoE does. The CoE sets the groundwork of how we engage properly and who’s responsible for what. And I think once that’s there, you’re able to go find those things.”
Dr. Thomas also reveals the two best places to start any automation journey: “You can always feel 99% sure that the best place to find something to automate is going to be in HR or finance, and that’s actually where we started. You know, how do you onboard people, how do you offboard—all these very rule-based items. Same thing with finances. You have all these vendors sending in payments and they’re sending out invoices and they’re getting invoices. How do you automate that piece? So those are the two low-hanging fruit.”
The client achieved success with automation in HR and finance, but the most interesting use case for RPA in this engagement arose when Dr. Thomas encountered a robotic paint machine.
“I was doing a tour of their manufacturing facility and that paint machine popped up. I said, ‘why can’t we do something about that?’ And that’s usually how I approach it. Just listening to people talk about where their pain points are.”
In fact, a big part of Dr. Thomas’ method is to go beyond the “symptoms” the client is verbalizing and dig deeper for root causes: “We bring that to the table, that really honest third-party evaluation of what’s going on. Like a doctor coming in, we’re doing a diagnosis.”
This robotic paint machine is integral to the manufacturer’s product and yet, as all paint nozzles can, it gets clogged up sometimes. Dr. Thomas explains: “Its nozzle clogs up as it paints, and it can go for 30, 40, 60 minutes like this and cost tens of thousands of dollars.” He continues, “Somebody had to sit there and watch it, looking for this alert to pop up.”
Each time the nozzle on the paint sprayer’s robotic arms experienced failure, there was an average downtime of two hours, which could back up production by 100 units.
Instead of paying someone to sit there and watch a paint robot all day, Dr. Thomas proposed creating an RPA solution where the bot looks electronically at the painting bay and reports back: “We put a big monitor up on the wall with a traffic light that shows green, yellow, and red.”
He continues, “So at the first indication of a problem, green goes to yellow, and people are immediately notified via e-mail and text about a possible problem. If it goes to red, the bot says, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem. Can we initiate a shutdown to save money?’ And the person can indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And this saved literally hundreds of thousands of dollars each year just by a very simple implementation.”
“I love this because it extends RPA beyond what we typically think of it. RPA is basically software robots. While we have physical robots in the world, there’s no reason that they cannot interact, and this is a great example of how we can enable the software robots to interact with physical robots to make a meaningful difference in a business.” — Dr. Thomas
The client expected to see an ROI in labor cost reduction of $80,000 a year—this figure represents one full-time employee per shift (for a total of two). The client also expected an annual gain in production in terms of both their paint utilization and real-time monitoring. Both paint utilization and real-time monitoring lend themselves to an increase in manufacture volume, while better real-time monitoring reduces errors, reduces downtime, improves quality, and saves money.
After implementation, the ROI turned out to be even higher. In addition to saving 50% more in labor costs than they had originally expected, the client also increased their manufacturing volume and reduced costly human errors and labor downtime. Beyond the quantitative, green-dollar ROI, the client also saw blue-dollar savings.
Most notably, employees were more satisfied when monotonous tasks were offloaded to RPA. While the need for having a job position for someone to sit and watch the paint machine all day was eliminated entirely, employees throughout the organization also enjoyed the cultural changes that RPA brought.
As they became more and more integral to business processes and supporting human employees, the RPA bots were personified with names.
“When they’re created properly, you can have a whole arsenal of digital assistants,” Dr. Thomas says. “They’re basically like employees because they have an account, and you log them and track them. When you needed this virtual employee, they’d get inserted from a hierarchy under the manager in that particular line of business so they could see that this digital employee is actually working for me.”
He continues, “We got cute and said all digital employees have to have the last name of [client organization’s first initial] AWE, which stands for [client organization name]’s Automated Workforce Employee. We gave the LOBs permission to give them a first name. We got all kinds of fun names like ‘Peppa.’ It became a fun environment to have these digital workers working with you.”
Dr. Thomas elaborates: “And that’s the environment we always want to put out there. It should not be scary, and I think that’s the problem. We’re here to make it a little easier and more fun. So you enjoy your job and the company can get the benefit of the extra work to make your life better, allow for raises and everything else.”
“The worst place you can be is to be so valuable you can't take vacation.” — Dr. Thomas
In this case study, RPA not only saved money and prevented halts in production with the physical paint robot, but it also supported human employees in other lines of business and improved the culture. While RPA can involve a large investment, when organizations implement RPA properly with governance and a passion to diagnose and problem-solve, they can achieve green- and blue-dollar ROIs that far outweigh the initial costs.
If you get sick, you can certainly try to “do it yourself”—this might include self-diagnosing on WebMD and self-medicating with over-the-counter drugs. And that might work. But the human body, like an organization and its technology stack, is a very complex system—you will reduce the risk and gain more benefits if you invest the time and money to consult with an expert to diagnose and treat your issues.
Organizations who are interested in RPA might be tempted to do it themselves by talking to software vendors and buying a tool, or by immediately kicking off their own projects. But in most cases, this initial instinct to jump in is a trap. If the manufacturing client hadn’t engaged Dr. Thomas, they would have likely overlooked the valuable use case for the paint sprayer monitoring bot, and they would have left a great deal of business benefits unrealized.
Like cloud migrations, ERP implementations, application modernization initiatives, and other major technology projects, most organizations can save effort, time, reduce risk, and increase business value by working with seasoned experts in those areas, rather than trying to go it alone. Paying for consulting may involve more up-front cost, but it will often lead to higher ROI in the end.
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Coming from a background in conducting original ethnographic research, Mary-Kate brings a humanities lens to the technology she writes about. She’s passionate about using her background in primary and secondary research to bring innovative solutions to clients in both the digital experience and automation spaces. Outside of work, Mary-Kate enjoys both traveling and hiking.