The pace of retail has accelerated considerably over the past few decades. Technology has paved the way for increased connectivity and paired with an increased customer demand to have faster delivery and a better experience, the pressure is on for retailers to deliver. It is more important than ever for retailers to consider ways that they can evolve to keep up with the pace of change. One area they can do this is with automation.

Automated processes have been part of businesses for years but it is something that can truly drive efficiency in all areas of business. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) are two areas of automation that continue to drive business transformation. So what are they and how can they transform retail?

What is Robotic Process Automation?

“Initially, RPA was designed to complete administrative work using static rule sets and sophisticated macros. Now, it is evolving to complete more advanced functions, such as analysing unstructured data sets using natural language processing and content analytics.” – Price Waterhouse Coopers

The KPMG Technology Industry Innovation survey ranked RPA second in the list of technologies that are perceived by tech industry leaders as having the greatest potential to drive future business transformation and long-term value. In addition to this, robotics, including examples such as autonomous vehicles, ranked number four. This certainly signals a drive towards automation and a perception that removing the human element from day-to-day tasks will enable future success.

But RPA is not a new concept. Like many of the technology innovation areas highlighted in the KPMG survey such as AI, Machine Learning and IoT, RPA has always existed but its application has evolved over time. So, whilst many of us will be familiar with the use of macros within an Excel spreadsheet, perhaps less of us had considered that to be a form of RPA. RPA is now considered by industry leaders to have great potential because of how it has evolved to handling business and computing decision making that might otherwise be handled by a person. The evolution of RPA has coincided with advancements in other technologies, such as Natural Language Processing, AI and Machine Learning. These technologies have become part of the same conversation. The advancement of such technologies has led us to where we are today – a more advanced level of RPA, known as IPA.

What is Intelligent Process Automation?

“IPA takes the robot out of the human. At its core, IPA is an emerging set of new technologies that combines fundamental process redesign with robotic process automation and machine learning. It is a suite of business-process improvements and next-generation tool that assists the knowledge worker by removing repetitive, replicable and routine tasks.” – McKinsey

The main difference between the two types of automation is that RPA is often software based, mimicking human actions, whereas IPA is the simulation of human intelligence by machines. The mainstream term is of course, Artificial Intelligence. And this is the next step for businesses: 47 per cent of digitally mature organisations or those who have advanced digital practices said they have a defined AI strategy.

When deployed correctly, automation can transform business processes, particularly in retail by creating efficiencies and streamlining processes.

How is automation driving business transformation?

As with any new and evolving technologies, it’s important to not just simply jump aboard the bandwagon. Regardless of the sector, organisations need to consider technologies on the basis that they will deliver business value and solve a pain point. Contrary to many beliefs, automation doesn’t have to take away decision making and control. In fact, when used in the right way it can enhance processes and empower retailers to make informed decisions about their supply chain.

In retail, huge amounts of data is generated every day. From supplier data to packaging measurements, the value of this data can often be lost if it is left to humans to process. Automation, and particularly AI, can be used to take in the data that is produced throughout the supply chain. The system can use intelligence it has gathered to flag risks before retailers even know they are there, enabling them to act ahead of time before the supply chain, and therefore end customer experience, is impacted.

Automation doesn’t present a huge threat to the workforce if it is used in the right way. Many retailers have already been using automated machines in the warehouse to take on tasks such as moving goods and packing items. When working in harmony with the human workforce, IPA can fundamentally change the way that the warehouse operates, ultimately driving efficiency and reducing risk. In the short term, the deployment of automation will also generate more opportunities, particularly in the manufacturing of robotics. In the long term, the workforce will evolve to take on these technology adversaries and will remain at the heart of every strong and successful organisation working in harmony with technology to transform supply chain operations.