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Transform your construction operations through RPA

INSIGHT ARTICLE  | 

Automation is quickly making its way into the construction industry, with bricklaying robots and 3D-mapping drones. But the use of robotic process automation in construction extends beyond work sites.

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, which has tight margins and an ongoing labor shortage, 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.

Why now?

RPA has existed for more than a decade, but it’s only recently 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.

A recent RSM survey found that the vast majority of middle market company leaders investing in automation or information technology in response to staffing challenges pointed to an increase in efficiency (85%) as the reason compared to a substitute for labor (11%)1.

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, 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 benefits

The cost to license and build a bot is relatively low compared to the potential savings it can yield. A McKinsey study found that the return on investment of RPA varies between 30% and 200% in its first year.2 Another study by the marketing company Aberdeen Group found that organizational leaders who use RPA in their accounts payable departments are able to process invoices twice as quickly as those who don’t.3  Eliminating that busywork can potentially improve the job satisfaction and career development for those employees.

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.

What’s next?

Global spending on RPA software last year reached an estimated $840 million, according to Gartner,4 up 63% from 2017. It’s on pace to continue growing at a breakneck pace, reaching $1.3 billion this year.

Widespread adoption has really just begun, but it’s scaling quickly. 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.

This adapted article was originally published in CFMA's Building Profits.

1J. Brusuelas, “RSM US Middle Market Business Index” (June 19, 2019) RSM US LLP.2X. Lhuer, “The next acronym you need to know about: RPA (robotic process automation)” (December 2016) McKinsey & Company.3M. Caton, “Embracing efficiency through Robotic Process Automation” (November 2017) Aberdeen Group.4“Gartner Says Worldwide Robotic Process Automation Software Market Grew 63% in 2018” (June 24, 2018) Gartner.

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