Automation: Beyond the factory floor

Automation is not just about robot welders. Helen Saunders discusses the current and future stages of business automation away from the production line.

Thanks to automation, every industry and every function will see the nature of employees’ work change considerably over the coming decades.
Thanks to automation, every industry and every function will see the nature of employees’ work change considerably over the coming decades.

Depending on the statistic you read, up to 47% of today’s jobs could disappear by 2030, as roles previously undertaken by humans are automated.

However, unlike factory production lines where automation originated, we’re unlikely to be sharing desk space or being served in the local supermarket by an actual robot.

Of course, nobody can predict the future, but it is likely that the majority of widespread automation will happen via artificial intelligence deployed in software, or in internet-hosted ‘bots’ (software robots).

What is almost certain though, is that every industry and every function will see the nature of employees’ work change considerably over the coming decades.

This article first appeared in the February issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.

Beyond the sensationalist headlines, automation is already commonly in use:

  • Basic customer service queries are already frequently handled by bots
  • Parking and toll fees are paid for via licence plate recognition systems
  • Self-driving vehicles operate in high-risk situations such as mines to minimise risks to humans
  • Equity trading is routinely executed by software algorithms

And taking it to the next level, trials of automation of complex cognitive tasks like medical diagnoses are already underway. In these examples, repetitive and largely manual tasks have been automated, with technology taking the bulk of the strain.

2017 was marked by many highlights, long standing challenges and opportunities for the UK economy - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
It’s surprising how many tasks are still not fully automated, particularly in manufacturing, where efficiency and cost control are KPIs – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

It’s surprising therefore how many tasks are still not fully automated, particularly in manufacturing, where efficiency and cost control are key performance indicators, and where digitalisation is a top priority. Your production lines may be highly automated, but what about the rest of your business?

Automation is a hot topic among business leaders, who are exploring how robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI), combined with machine learning, can be used to streamline processes, ensure consistency and compliance, and cut costs.

So, where can you expect to see automation having the most impact across the carpeted side of the organisation?

Here’s a whistle-stop tour of automation that’s happening right now, or in the near future, by key corporate function.

Human resources

Hiring, on-boarding and employee changes are already automated in many companies, with little human intervention required once individuals are established in an HR system.

The days of filing a paper holiday request are long gone for most of us, yet we still rely on emails and the local grapevine to find answers to pressing questions, stay on top of employee sentiment and fill roles or staff projects.

As teams become increasingly virtual and employees and candidates expect immediate attention, automation is beginning to take some of the strain:

1. Chat bots are increasingly being considered as a means of directing employees and candidates to the correct information. Cheaper than a helpdesk and much quicker and easier to navigate than a static intranet, they are particularly suitable for global organisations where intranets can easily run to hundreds of thousands of pages.

2. Machine learning is introducing predictive abilities using statistics around employee behaviour, such as increased absence or productivity, by analysing data from multiple sources, not just the HR system. The impact on morale of a well-publicised product recall, for example, may be hugely relevant to internal communications, while a change in a competitor’s recruitment strategy may require action to retain talent.

3. Talent platforms have the potential to revolutionise the internal as well as the external jobs marketplace, enabling employees to choose and/or be selected for projects based on their skills or specific experience, improving utilisation, cutting out unnecessary recruitment and creating more development opportunities.

Automation in action – HR:

Sky Betting and Gaming has won recruitment industry accolades for ‘Ask Jeff’, a new chat bot which uses the face of Sky Sports’ football presenter Jeff Stelling to engage candidates and support the recruitment experience.

‘Ask Jeff’ is available round the clock on Facebook to respond to questions with the use of interactive buttons on an applicant’s status, business locations, benefits and social opportunities.


As organisations digitalise, ensuring the smooth running and constant availability of their IT networks becomes ever-more important and difficult to navigate. With disparate systems and the number of IoT devices connected to the network increasing exponentially, IT teams

frequently find themselves in constant firefighting mode, applying changes and fixes and following up on endless alerts.

Advances in automation are providing some welcome relief for stretched CIOs, for example:

1. Software-defined networking is enabling much of the work involved in managing a network to be automated, allowing changes to be made much faster and more reliably and in line with business requirements, rather than being constrained by hardware limitations.

2. The battle to evade cyber-attacks is as relentless as it is critical. Automating threat intelligence by cross-referencing data on attacks made within the organisation with the latest research, ongoing screening of threats active within the network and defining processes for remediation are all now possible.

These measures significantly improve the organisation’s chances of defending itself against an attack and recovering in the (inevitable) event of one occurring.

3. Fixing faults swiftly and efficiently is bread and butter for the IT department, yet many organisations still employ a relatively manual fault management process. Automating fault detection, reporting and remediation is now possible, cutting the time from identification to resolution drastically and freeing up the IT team for less reactive tasks.

Automation in action – IT:

IT company Cisco has developed a way to identify faults before they have even occurred, without human interaction.

By using data collected through thousands of engineering hours, it can identify potential issues like a memory leak or a route process crash before they happen, and proactively alert the right people via a predefined, automated response process, providing pre-emptive action steps.

This prevents downtime or degradation of their network and the associated escalations, saving countless hours of trouble-shooting and case management.


The discovery process, which has historically required people to spend hours trawling documents for relevant information, is essential preparation for almost all activities undertaken by lawyers.

However, it is time consuming and inherently expensive, even with much of the work carried out by paralegals rather than fully qualified lawyers.

Using AI platforms to trawl not just the content, but the sentiment and context of emails, letters and other documents has the potential to not only speed up the process, but also significantly slash the cost for a wide range of activities:

1. Mining documents for evidence that will be useful in litigation.

2. Drafting and reviewing contracts, using the most up-to-date and relevant versions as a basis and reducing the time taken to create the initial draft and the number of iterations.

3. Researching and performing due diligence before corporate acquisitions, ranging from verifying the value of the brand to checking all the required certifications are valid and up to date.


Sales people often spend a significant proportion of their working week on administrative tasks, or searching for content to fulfil a request or answer an inquiry. It makes good sense therefore to automate as much of the non-essential tasks as possible.

1. Manual reporting kills efficiency, with many sales people still experiencing regular interruptions to give updates on the status of a particular deal. Automating the process, through the use of dashboards and alerts that roll up to team or territory level from data entered by individuals, not only saves time in responding to calls and emails, but acts as an incentive.

2. Lead handling is getting smarter, with machine learning providing much more sophisticated options than allocating them simply based on territory. By analysing the characteristics of leads, using multiple data sets, it’s possible to match them with the salesperson or team who will stand the best chance of success, or to prioritise which should get the earliest attention.

3. Content is a huge issue for many sales organisations. Getting hold of the latest version of brochures, product specifications, price lists and other key information such as corporate policies to include in RFPs (request for proposals) is time-consuming and unreliable.

Automating publication of these materials in a controlled repository ensures sales people always issue the right version, minimising the time taken to respond to inquiries and minimising the risk of inaccurate information being provided.


Automation is already commonplace for relatively simple finance and accounting processes, for example managing vendor invoices and payments, payroll and expense management.

Yet the application of cognitive capabilities will increasingly transform the manual tasks that currently comprise much of the working day for accounts teams, for example:

1. Regular accounting tasks will be routinely automated, including; general ledger reconciliation, fixed-asset accounting, journal entries, intercompany transactions and general data entry.

2. Evaluation of credit limits and variations, with recommendations for remedial action generated automatically, will reduce the time taken to make decisions and ensure adherence to company policy.

3. Detailed risk reporting will be easier to carry out, to drill down and segment, with exhaustive checks on data quality, and the ability to initiate alerts and remedial actions. This offers greater opportunities to explore potential issues and less chance of people minimising a potentially negative trend, or committing fraud.

So, there you have it. It’s not just your production line that is becoming increasingly automated. Almost every function of your manufacturing business will likely be transformed by robotic process automation over the coming decade.

This does not necessarily mean that accounts payable will be obsolete or that your legal counsel will be replaced by a software program, and it is unlikely that humans will no longer be required in any form.

However, it does demonstrate once again the pace of digitalisation and the need for us as employers and individuals to become more agile, to embrace change and ensure we continue to re-skill, to up-skill and automate where possible and practical.

Helen Saunders, EMEAR Communications Lead, Cisco Advanced Services.