Humans, AI, and Automation Merge in a Fully IoT World

People are irreplaceable even in the age of artificial intelligence, offering nuanced skills that AI and machine learning don't have the capability to replace.

Intelligent process automation primarily focuses on automating and optimizing business processes that involve people and documents—not processes related to manufacturing automation. The technology is creating essential capabilities that improve business process automation by addressing workflow, forms, and mobile apps. It also is expanding into new and emerging areas, such as robotic process automation, process and machine intelligence, and AI and machine learning.

As the technology continues to develop, it is also on a path to provide the missing link in the IoT value chain. The potential is that a virtuous circle of IoT data, insight, decisions, and actions can be leveraged using a holistic set of tools. Those tools will drive both continuous improvement and more fully optimized business operations. But where do the people fit in?

Intelligent Process Automation

“With intelligent process automation, we are seeing rote manual tasks being replaced, and-for tasks that require human intelligence, creativity, strategic thinking, or decision-making-humans are normally still making the decisions, but with the support of computers,” Matt Fleckenstein, chief marketing officer at Nintex, told Design News. “Over time, the trend is that this will merge to a point where humans will defer to machines for more decision making. We are currently in the early stages of this maturity curve, where machines can learn how decisions were reached and can create a model for making specific decisions.”

automation in the supply chain
A workflow-enabled digital supply chain and sophisticated best-of-breed delivery management system provides rich functionality, such as truckload mapping, container management, dispatching, scanning into the truck, condition monitoring, and more. (Image Source: ChainLink Research)

Fleckenstein said that the use of intelligent process automation is also being extended for use in supply chain management and to optimize manufacturing processes. An example is in ecommerce, where a website can provide an incredible shopping and checkout experience, but problems emerge as soon as something goes wrong, such as the customer being shipped the wrong item. Even though part of the process is highly automated, all of the processes after the purchase are manually handled and are often incredibly inefficient.

“In the world of IoT, I can have RFID tags on containers and systems to help with container management,” he added. “But if the processes that happen when products are delayed, for example, are not automated in combination with humans and machines, companies are unable to get the value out of the system that could be achieved. Lack of automation affects the consumer experience and customer experience in a number of ways.”

The IoT is interesting because much of the discussion in the IoT world is related to mission-critical use cases and a focus on production and processes running efficiently. The real value of IoT will be when users can also exploit the value of that data across the enterprise, which means getting the information into the hands of people to deal with it.

“Once data becomes actionable, the organization needs to know what action to take and how systems can be used to guide people to complete specific tasks,” Fleckenstein said. “It becomes less about the capturing of data at the edge, less about transmitting data and separating signal from noise, and more about identifying processes that are impacted and how they need to change. And ultimately, there is a question about how internal processes need to become more automated to realize the full value of what IoT can bring to the table.”

IPA-enabled IoT

For companies, the goal of IoT isn’t just to generate data, analyze the data, or even to enable data-driven decisions. It is all of these things. But it is even more important to enable data-driven actions that can be continuously improved and thereby optimized. This ability to enable not just automation but the orchestration and optimization of complex processes is the overarching strategic benefit of intelligent process automation.

According to the Nintex viewpoint, with business optimization as the goal, a crucial tactic is to start small by defining discrete IPA projects that can yield concrete near-term results. This approach builds awareness of and support for IPA within the enterprise, and creates examples that others in the organization can emulate. As a result, new workflows can create their own demand and spread virally across the enterprise.

Their takeaway is that, for all the attention the IoT has received, it is still in its early stages in part because enterprises are still figuring out exactly where and how IoT can benefit them. Adoption will build steadily as they come to understand the role of IPA-enabled IoT in optimizing businesses.

Al Presher is a veteran contributing writer for Design News, covering automation and control, motion control, power transmission, robotics, and fluid power.

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