Since at least the third century BCE, shipping has been a crucial part of global trade. Today, over 90% of goods are transported by sea. Despite its importance, most shipping and logistics organisations still rely on basic software and inefficient manual processes, leading to errors and delays.
Automation is nothing new. During the industrial revolution in the 1800s, machines took over repetitive manual processes in factories. By the 1950s, computers could already automate more complex tasks. Since then, as computers continued to develop, so did automation. With today’s scalable, flexible and cost-effective cloud-based solutions, process automation is widely available. According to Deloitte, in 2019, only 58% of organisations used computer-based automation technologies; by 2020, this had shot up to 73%.
In shipping and logistics, process automation streamlines tasks such as information reception, pickup, packaging, transport, delivery, planning, procurement, inventory management, freight management, distribution, customer service, billing, and data analysis. The goal is to reduce costs, improve customer satisfaction, and streamline the complex logistics process.
Process automation is the use of technology to automate repetitive tasks and workflows. As the Oxford Dictionary explains, a process is a series of actions that follow a set of rules, organised in a specific way to achieve a pre-determined result. Processes can operate independently and in isolation, but they can also interact with and rely on other processes.
Technology-driven process automation streamlines complex business processes by incorporating three essential functions:
- process automation
- information centralisation
- reduced human input requirements.
According to Tibco, process automation aims to eliminate bottlenecks, decrease errors and data loss, and enhance transparency, inter-departmental communication, and processing speed. However, the maritime industry comes with unique challenges. Widespread process automation in maritime relies on the integration of software tools, human involvement, and established processes, across multiple countries and organisations to create a fully functioning workflow. For this to work, there are a few barriers to overcome.
Types of process automation
Modern maritime businesses are increasingly integrating process automation into their operations. With the rise of digital transformation, organisations are turning to computer-based tools to streamline their workflows.
Some of the most widely adopted automation technologies include:
- Robotic process automation (RPA);
- Business process automation (BPA);
- Digital process automation (DPA); and
- Intelligent process automation (IPA).
Each type has unique features and advantages. Understanding these allows organisations to choose the solution that best fits their specific needs and goals. Whether the business aims to improve efficiency, reduce costs, or enhance service quality, process automation is a critical component of modern business operations.
Robotic Process Automation
RPA automates tasks with software bots. These bots are ideal for rule-based processes, as they use a pre-programmed set of rules and instructions to interact with computer systems and applications. With low-code/no-code platforms, business users can create bots with minimal IT support.
Business Process Automation
BPA optimises processes, then automates a complex and multi-step business processes, from beginning to end. It automatically initiates the next step in a business process once the previous one is completed. Unlike RPA, BPA integrates multiple enterprise applications and systems. In this case, removing intervention reduces the risks of personal workarounds and unauthorised changes.
Digital Process Automation
DPA is a newer type of process automation that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to automate more complex, lengthy tasks. DPA solutions can learn from data and adapt to changes, making them more flexible and adaptable than traditional RPA and BPA solutions.
DPA streamlines and enhances business processes, improving the experience of both employees and customers. Unlike RPA, which automates specific tasks, DPA uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to automate more complex, lengthy processes. By reducing friction in the workflow, organisations using DPA can transform and elevate their business processes. Because AI and ML can learn as they go, DPA solutions adapt to changes, making them more flexible and adaptable than traditional RPA and BPA solutions.
Intelligent Process Automation
Each type of process automation has its own strengths and weaknesses. However, for the best of all worlds, there is intelligent process automation (IPA). IPA leverages technologies including AI, ML, and NLP to combine the other automation types in order to automate tasks intelligently and efficiently. This frees human workers to focus on the more strategic work that only they can do.
Process automation is a powerful tool, regardless of the industry or type of process automation. Although each type has its own strengths and weaknesses, taken together they can significantly improve business efficiency, reduce manual labour and human error, cut back on costs, improve safety, and even reduce environmental emissions. All that remains is to see whether the shipping industry can overcome its normal barriers to widespread implementation: communication, collaboration, and transparency. Where these exist, both in and outside of the maritime industry, digital and automation projects have thrived.