Robotic Process Automation or RPA for Procurement Processing

I can pretty much close my eyes and click through the process said James Timothy, an assistant manager employed in the procurement department at one of the largest publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility companies.

With more than 500 requests that come to the department every month, from a laptop charger to a new laptop, the department has a dedicated team of 5-6 employees to process these requests and purchase them from the authorized list of vendors. James just needs to fill in the requests that come in his email into the shopping cart of the SAP Procurement software module every month. The good ones on the team are those who do the steps really quick without any errors. Imagine doing the same task, click by click, day after day, month after month and year after year. It has monotony written all over it.

Accion Labs suggested automation using a bot that could do the task of picking up the request from the email to putting it in the shopping cart. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) would get the work done faster. It was great for the team too as it would free up significant time for them to take on higher order skills related work.

Why RPA?

The key motivation behind RPA for the large enterprise was faster data processing, time optimization for the team, as managing the huge volume of requests was getting cumbersome, and moving away from the tedious task of processing info from multichannel data points and then synchronizing all these in the SAP ERP. The tasks were repetitive and process rule-based. Accion Labs conducted a one-week discovery workshop with the department and teams to understand in detail the end-to-end steps of the workflow with roles and responsibilities. A number of use cases were identified with their existing challenges and best-fit technology solutions were suggested. Based on the outcome of the discovery phase and customer preferences, Accion selected the most appropriate RPA tool to implement automation.

Building shopping ‘bots’

Soon after the discovery workshop and initial knowledge transfer, the next step was to automate the process step-by-step and screen-by-screen with a software bot.

The existing process had a team member manually copy and paste the request info from the emails with all the item details that had to be purchased by the department. This was then uploaded into an ERP. Each product had authorized vendors listed out. The team then did a manual search for each product and model on the vendor websites to get the cost and availability details entry into the ERP and then into the shopping cart. There were multiple carts for different group of products. Then, a service order was generated and sent for approval. Once approved, the product was purchased. Typically, this shopping cart building process would take almost two days for the team to complete and there were chances of errors as well.

A PoC to automate the process using RPA was built and delivered to the customer within 9 weeks. It involved automation of 4 screens with step-by-step details of all clicking, typing, reading screen information using computer vision or Optical Character Recognition (OCR) by the software robot. The bot starts with the excel sheet that has all the email requests, it begins reading the first item of the request with help of OCR and does text scraping. To search the requested product, it used web scraping on websites of authorized vendors selling these products and then populates the selected model/item of product in the ERP SAP. Once the shopping cart is complete with all the requests for the month, it was ready to be screened by the approving authorities to buy. The accuracy of the bot improved with regular training, supervision, and monitoring of activities. Overall, RPA proved to be an advantage as bots automated the routine manual processes and tasks using the existing IT infrastructure of the company. The solution also had additional features such as the daily summary report of the status of requests and error handling wherein the bot sends out an email alert to concerned authorities. The work of two days for the team was done in two hours with lower risk of errors.

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Promoting the ‘Knowledge Work’ culture

Have you been thinking of automating a monotonous work routine in your HR, finance, procurement, customer service department? A process that is rule-based and has a fixed number of steps with the minimum number of approvers, talk to us and we can get a bot do it for you, giving room for the team to upgrade on higher-order skills.