Amid thin margins and a shortage of skilled labor, construction companies are continuing to turn toward robotics and automation as solutions to help their businesses. Beyond bricklaying robots and 3D-mapping drones, the use of robotic process automation (RPA) has become very common place in many tech-savvy construction company back-offices.
The robots used in RPA aren’t walking, talking humanoids, but rather virtual bots housed on a server or on the cloud. Each bot is a software program that mimics the actions of humans in order to complete structured, logic-based tasks, such as drafting and sending invoices, consolidating documents for an expense report or handling various administrative human resources tasks.
Bots are designed to augment a human workforce, making workers more productive by eliminating the need for humans to spend time on repetitive, low-value activities. For the construction industry, the ability to free up staff to work on other tasks by using this emerging technology could make a significant difference to a company’s bottom line and add agility to the organization.
RPA has existed for more than a decade, but only over the past couple years has it hit a maturity point as the costs of implementation have become more accessible on a wider scale and the technology becoming more business-user friendly. The underlying technology driving RPA has also improved over the past few years, allowing it to take on increasingly complicated tasks and complete them more quickly driving quicker time to value.
Automation is not just about reducing head count, but improving accuracy and efficiency.
The case for RPA in construction
Because it’s about the process rather than the task itself, RPA can be used in virtually any department within a business. The more often the process is performed and more routine the task is, the bigger the cost and time savings.
Following are some of the ways that the construction industry could make use of RPA:
- Client or owner invoice creation: RPA can pull together the necessary information, consolidate it into a single package, and send the invoice out within minutes.
- Updating client, vendor, supplier or subcontractor lists: RPA can automatically update client lists and repopulate any forms with corrected contact information.
- Document management: Rather than an outdated filing system that can lead to errors or lost documents, RPA can automatically file scanned documents into a centralized, easily managed system.
- Recruiting: RPA can automatically scan LinkedIn for candidates with a specific education, certifications or experience.
- Cost monitoring: RPA can take over the production of cost-to-estimate reports, pulling in data from contractors and suppliers, importing it into the project budget and generating real-time analytics into regular weekly, daily or on-demand reports.
- Email blasts: RPA can create and send mass emails based on lists or other rules that have been created.
- Estimate generation: Once basic information from a customer has been collected, RPA can use that data to generate a preliminary quote for potential work.
- Tax preparation: RPA can pull tax-related data and documents from various systems, making it easier for on-staff accountants or an outsourced team to easily access the information needed to file taxes.
- Onboarding employees, subcontractors, suppliers: The mundane, repetitive nature of collecting documents and information, filing contracts and setting up payments makes them perfect for automation.
- Email response: RPA can handle responses to some basic emails or web queries, or direct the email to the appropriate contact at a company.
- Processing invoices: As vendor invoices come in, RPA can extract the necessary data from them and automatically enter it into an accounting system. RPA can also send a confirmation email to vendors letting them know that the invoices are in processing and highlighting any missing information.
- Request for proposal production: RPA can assist with several parts of the RFP process, including creating an estimate, gathering supporting documentation and populating at least part of the proposal.
The cost to license and build a bot is relatively low compared to the potential savings it can yield. The Institute for RPA estimates that RPA solutions can deliver an immediate savings of 25% to 40% in labor costs alone. In addition, a McKinsey study found that more than 81% of predictable physical work, 69% of data processing, and 64% of data-collection activities could feasibly be automated. On top of that the McKinsey study noted that by automating manual and repetitive tasks, successful operation centers are reducing costs by 30-60% while increasing delivery quality. The boost in productivity also makes employees who can delegate tasks to RPA more valuable to the company. Sales professionals might spend less time drafting RFPs, for example, and more time meeting face-to-face with clients; recruiters might spend less time seeking out candidates and more time interviewing them; a project manager can focus on managing subcontractors rather than worrying about whether they’ve properly filled out their paperwork.
In addition to productivity, organizations can expect to see a reduction in mistakes. Bots are never tempted to cut corners in ways that might lead to quality or compliance issues. Companies that build bots according to regulatory rules can rest easy knowing the bots will not only adhere to those rules, but will also leave a trail proving their compliance to potential auditors.
Robots don’t take breaks or sleep, so once a bot is running, it could, essentially, work on its given task 24 hours a day. Bots also offer elasticity. Managers can scale up and scale down without making drastic (and expensive) changes to the human workforce. This agility is a huge advantage to adjust between high and low demand cycles.
Widespread adoption has really just begun, but it’s scaling quickly. The total market spend on RPA is expected to increase from 1.2 billion in 2020 to 13 billion in 2030 according to digital transformation research firm, Transforma Insights. Those that don’t adopt changing technologies may find themselves unable to compete against rivals with an augmented workforce that can complete tasks more accurately, more quickly and at a lower cost.