Author(s): Preeti Thukaram, Associate Director – Automation Invenics Limited
Automation is not new but will have the greatest impact on how people and businesses operate now and in the future. Automation is an umbrella term that encompasses various technologies and applications where human interaction is minimised. The need for automation can be attributed to the need for increased efficiency and productivity. Automation relieves people from mundane and repetitive tasks so they may focus their time and energy on more sophisticated and creative challenges. While this would be the best outcome, there is always the 50% chance that all that extra time will go to waste on social media fuelling own vanity or expressing hate towards fellow beings and leading humanity down a spiral path to destruction.
For the time being, automation drives down costs, improves agility, and makes business models practical, with a potential upside of improvement in efficiency. We are aware that automation is changing multiple sectors, including spaceflight, telecommunications, and farming. Most enterprises have taken steps to leverage the benefits while there are ongoing concerns that automation will replace jobs in some sectors. Evidence suggests that it can also create new jobs and steer people towards other (better?) opportunities. This only means the task force needs new skills – Reskilling and upskilling the workforce will become the focus of industries, individuals, and governments in the next decade. Budgets will be reallocated from the clerical jobs pool to the creative jobs pool. Strategies will be put in place and a whole new system to track the programme will evolve.
The annual turnover of pharmaceutical goods wholesalers in the UK was nearly £55 billion in 2021. The Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector consists of products that sell at a fast pace, at a low cost, and are high in demand. FMCG companies produce, manufacture, and distribute household and personal items found at supermarkets, pharmacies, other retailers, and eCommerce platforms. Naturally, this sector has invested heavily in software that can help deliver with speed and efficiency. Some of the common systems in these industries are the Product Information Management Software (PIM), Distribution Management System (DMS), Retail Operations Software, etc. The pharma companies have additionally invested in Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS), Quality Management Systems (QMS) to maintain quality standards, Electronic Data Capture (EDC) and Clinical Trial Management Systems (CTMS) to collect and manage clinical data and a host of other software to record and manage medicines, inventory, sales, and prescriptions.
All the above mentioned software systems need a skilled human workforce to initiate, manage, and interact with data that will get entered, transformed, analysed and visualised. The time and cost to train and maintain these resources are huge while the quality of work is not that great as it involves mundane, repetitive tasks. Naturally, corporates gravitate towards automation. Though the pharma companies have been slow to address the talent gaps, early leaders have created tailored, cross-functional Centres-Of-Excellence to reskill workers. Listed below are a few types of automation used in the pharmaceutical industry:
1) Fixed Automation: This involves a fixed configuration of the manufacturing process and is best suited for repetitive tasks that remain unchanged over time. Example: The Chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing processes
2) Programmable Automation: This allows for more flexibility compared to fixed automation. It involves using computer programs and/or control systems to automate tasks. Example: Processes involving tablet compression and coating.
3) Flexible Automation: Flexible automation offers even greater adaptability than programmable automation. Example: Automating counterfeit prevention by enabling tracking and traceability of pharmaceutical products
4) Process Automation: This focuses on automating specific business processes, such as sales, marketing, HR, and compliance. It aims to streamline workflows and improve efficiency.
5) Integrated Automation: Integrated automation involves integrating various applications, such as ERP, CRM, or project management software, into a unified system and enables the automation of information flow across existing applications.
6) Robotic Process Automation: This uses software robots to automate repetitive and rule-based tasks, mimics human actions and interacts with applications to perform tasks.
7) Intelligent Process Automation – This adopts the various capabilities of AI, ML and deep learning along with RPA for smarter automation.
If you are a student of engineering, physics, or thermodynamics, you would have studied the Carnot’s Engine – an ideal engine that achieves maximum thermal efficiency according to the second law of thermodynamics. It is a dream come true invention! However, in the same class, the teacher would burst the bubble by explaining that the efficiency of a Carnot’s engine cannot be 100% because it is limited by surrounding conditions. To achieve 100% efficiency, we would need absolute zero temperature, no loss of heat by friction, etc., which are difficult to achieve even in lab conditions. So much gained and lost in the brief span of a single lecture!
Similarly, automation can never keep up its promise of a ‘Return on Investment’ if the business processes that are being automated are not optimised. The current situation we are in is most suited for tools like Process Mining to evolve. Process mining software is a tool that monitors event logs to identify how humans and systems interact together during the life cycle of a business process. It not only identifies vulnerabilities and gaps, it also enables users to create data-driven improvements. As always, users look for ease of use, simplicity, non-invasive integrations, and application development to adopt this new methodology. In addition to helping remove bottlenecks in existing business flows, it has to discover processes and provide organizational insight into complex interactions that need to be automated. While systems are being constantly upgraded or replaced, people too are getting promoted, replaced or simply leaving the organisation. This makes it impossible to capture the bird’s-eye view of all the business processes across an organisation not to mention their dependencies and interactions. Process mining tools when configured correctly will help analyse and visualise the end-to-end life cycle of a process based on the data, systems and human interactions involved. We can be the judge of its recommendations and tune it to improve efficiency. Intelligent automation armed with process mining will redefine efficiency and revolutionise businesses.
Microsoft-Bing was used for research. Author has 20 years of experience in the software industry with 10+ years in discovery, design, and delivery of automation solutions across the FMCG, BSFI Sectors.