Say robotics, and we think of a physical robot. Say automation, and we think controls, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), digital dashboards, cloud-based software and other connotations. However, robotics process automation (RPA) is a tad different.
RPA is a virtual robot driven by software and artificial intelligence (AI). Have you ever communicated with a chat bot online? Seen the virtual assistant on your cable company’s website? Those are bots driven by RPA, and RPA can serve a multitude of purposes.
RPA is becoming a popular solution for many industries and functions (e.g., energy, utilities, human resources, accounts payable, invoicing, regulatory compliance, form completion, customer service). It employs AI to perform repetitive tasks that software can automate. The application, which may run locally or in the cloud, is gaining ground as companies realize the efficiency such automation brings.
Oded Karev is vice president and head of advanced process automation for NICE, a company that develops software for automation, including RPA. Karev said RPA, in general, takes processes that don’t have to involve a human and automates them. A form is filled out, systems extract the data and absorb the information, but there’s no need for a human to be involved. All the data is there.
The virtual AI robot is performing repetitive and sometimes mundane tasks that a human would ordinarily perform. However, the organization that employs RPA must figure out how it is going to turn the time saved into a return on investment.
“When you look at RPA and where it brings savings, it’s a question of what the organization chooses to do with these savings,” Karev said. “For example, we have a customer in the procurement department where we were able to take away the administrative staff of processing and procurement requests. So, someone in the business saying, ‘I need you to buy me pens.’ It goes into a procurement department. It needs processing. A lot of transactional work to process this request. Do we have all of the approvals? Do we have the right vendors? Is it going through all the systems? We automated all of that. We freed up on average three hours of working day per purchasing representative. Now the company has to take that savings and utilize it.”
When they do, there’s a payback on their investment outlay for the RPA technology. It’s up to them to find ways to shift resources once RPA is working well.
If this sounds revolutionary, that’s probably because it is. NICE goes so far as to say, “the inclusion of intelligent robotics [and] organizational systems are designed to factor in employee interest, attention and attitudinal drift. This improves employee motivation, creativity and mental well-being on an individual level while driving increased efficiency on an organizational level.”
NICE recently teamed up with Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, to further explore the topic.
“Automation can empower employees and reduce errors, when applied correctly,” Ariely said. “There is a significant opportunity to leverage robotics as a tool to improve our work and make our workplaces more engaging and creative. When we create a collaborative relationship that plays to the different strengths of humans and robots, everyone benefits.”
Can the construction industry use AI?
Is AI ready for the climate in which electrical contractors work? Is now the time to learn about the technology? Can the construction industry use AI? It has and it will continue to. Project management, for instance, can greatly benefit from AI.
According to management consulting firm McKinsey, construction needs help, and technology, more specifically AI, can help. McKinsey’s 2016 report “Imagining Construction’s Digital Future” states, “The construction industry is ripe for disruption. Large projects across asset classes typically take 20 percent longer to finish than scheduled and are up to 80 percent over budget.”
Researcher JBKnowledge, in its 2017 Sixth Annual Construction Technology Report, trumpets the benefit of AI in the future of construction technology: “If more construction professionals understood the work tasks that automation and artificial intelligence technologies can augment and enhance, they might focus less on the tasks they will ‘replace.’”
As Deloitte Vice Chairman Paul Sallomi wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “A confluence of forces has propelled artificial intelligence into the business mainstream.”
Figuring out how to deploy it in construction is the next step.