Robotic Process Automation: Raising Expectations in Logistics

Digital progress drives service improvements in 3PLs

Software robots are making their way onto the logistics landscape, creating real impact on an industry that has been trapped under the weight of extensive manual processes. Known as robotic process automation (RPA), these robots act as a digital workforce, working side by side with employees to streamline operations and expedite key business activities.

By automating repetitive, mundane tasks, productivity gains are compounded across thousands of transactions, enabling greater capacity and agility. For buyers of 3PL services, this newfound efficiency is raising expectations for services to be faster, smarter, and more in sync with the day-to-day needs of stakeholders along the supply chain.

RPA mimics the actions of people, and can automatically collect and input data between portals, websites, internal applications, and bank systems. For example, many 3PL providers are working to eliminate the manual processes that draw data from various websites and use it to support pricing strategies.

As a result, 3PL users are likely to see the automation of load and intermodal pricing as a newly available service among those competing for their business. There are many benefits to leveraging a 3PL provider dedicated to increased service and performance though automation technologies:

Premier (high-value) real-time services available to more customers

Automation plays an essential role in enabling customer service excellence and premium services, such as the ability to request a shipment pick-up by email. For example, these offerings typically require significant re-keying of data and updating of multiple systems to keep data synchronized, which presents challenges for any company. The process could take up to one full-time equivalent (FTE) role per premium customer.

By deploying RPA in the customer service role, a smart software robot can instead extract shipment details from an incoming email request for a pick-up, log in and schedule the job, and access customer portals to advise of schedules.

RPA also improves the customer experience by extracting relevant information such as the bill of lading, carrier invoice, and other pertinent documents. This all happens within seconds, rather than hours—meaning 3PL buyers can be automatically updated of job progress, including the location of GPS-enabled vehicles. The customer experience is smooth and streamlined, improving both service and end-user satisfaction.

Improved quality of service

Transportation and 3PL providers typically employ a corps of back-office staff and customer service representatives (CSRs) to manually enter and re-key data for primary business activities. Quoting, scheduling and tracking shipments, securing proof of delivery, generating and collecting invoices, closing out loads, and more are often handled by teams of people executing repetitive yet finely detailed operations. As automation technologies become more commonplace with providers, users can expect significantly greater accuracy and speed in communications and handling.

Reduce or eliminate human intervention in scheduling and tracking

Software robots can be programmed to collect a range of scheduling information, including pickup and drop-off points, shipment distance, and desired delivery timeframe. Upon receipt of a new tender, robots use these parameters to pick an appropriate delivery slot. If the robot is unable to secure an appointment, it extracts all the pertinent information and sends it to a human operator, who can establish a new set of parameters and instruct the robot to re-attempt delivery scheduling.

3PL operator Crete Carrier provides an example of effective shipment tracking, harnessing RPA to enhance visibility into freight as it moves across the country. In stark contrast to earlier days (when drivers might have had to physically go to a facility to determine a vehicle’s availability), RPA automatically confirms the location and load status of individual vehicles. The firm estimates that its RPA platform schedules 40-50 percent of appointments without human intervention, in a completely automated process that increases convenience for 3PL buyers.

By capitalizing on automation, 3PL organizations not only make their processes run more efficiently but also enable their business groups to monitor processes over time and learn where further improvements can be made. As 3PL buyers and end-users experience the seamlessness offered by a provider with a greater number of automated operations, their expectations of service will only expand.

End users are really in the driver’s seat of this transformation, continually tasked with finding ways to improve their own company performance and turning to more digitally savvy 3PL providers to meet their needs. For example, Crete’s improved ability to proactively communicate order status at every stage of delivery has increased its business with customers who deliver direct to their end-customers—a much more sensitive and time-critical service than standard business-to-business shipping.

Automation is a matter of value. It’s picking up speed across the logistics landscape and poised for steady growth, as providers integrate RPA with other systems to automate processes as diverse as lead generation, credit clearing, and load and intermodal pricing. It’s a competitive evolution, and is creating a remarkable jump from the industry’s earliest efforts to better serve its customers by modernizing the movement of data.

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