The Software Side of Robots

November 21, 2017

Not all robots are the cold, steel machines often depicted in popular culture. By definition, at least according to Merriam-Webster, a robot can be as simple as a “device that automatically performs complicated, often repetitive tasks.” This is something Flint Hills Resources deals with when inputting repetitious, manual data on a very regular basis.

To help empower employees with the tools to automate some of their most time-consuming responsibilities, the company launched an automation initiative leveraging a variety of tools that include Robotic Process Automation (RPA or “bots”) and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) in late 2016 – “bots” being computer software that can be programmed to handle any number of different commands on a user’s behalf.

This automation initiative generated a list of challenges around controls, training, time management and the impact to existing systems and processes. Also concerning to leadership and staff was the impact to employees whose positions might be automated away.

But Flint Hills Resources and other Koch companies have found that automation frees up employees to perform higher-value tasks that require intuition or advanced decision making … tasks that humans are better suited for than bots. Automation also provides an opportunity to improve accuracy and consistency, and eliminate repetitive tasks within many roles.

“There’s always going to be apprehension, because change is scary,” said Scott Bender, director of automation and modernization with Flint Hills Resources. “But we’ve taken away some of that fear because we’re helping people make their own lives better. And we’ve redeployed people who’ve made big impacts, so we’re showing that this is not just a job elimination effort – it’s how we make things better for everyone over time.”

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Despite some initial hesitancy, many employees were quick to embrace automation at Flint Hills Resources. For senior accountant Thomas Moeder, now a member of the accounting automation team, the opportunity built into the software was apparent from day one. So he approached his supervisor requesting access to the software.

“I saw the potential to save time and eliminate some of my daily tasks so that I could have more time to focus on other things,” said Moeder. “For someone who had no coding knowledge at all, it was really quick and easy to pick up. And being able to run processes while I’m not actually sitting at my desk has been great. Even if I run off to a meeting, I can still be doing work.”

In the first eight months of the program, Flint Hills Resources went from just two licensed users to more than 200. Today, there are nearly 300 bots hard at work for the company, with another 146 in progress (a number that’s constantly growing).

“What the software bots do is, they interact through the front end of systems,” said Bender. “They aren’t designed to go through the back end of systems like an IT solution would do. They leverage the controls we already have in place, just more efficiently and accurately. We actually find that in a lot of cases, we have to build pauses into our bots because the systems can’t move as fast as the bots can.”

In total, the bot program has saved the company over 25,000 labor hours to date. Using the labor savings created by the softbots, Flint Hills Resources created a special team dedicated to finding new ways to further streamline and automate processes across the company.

“We’ve created a team of over 20 people fully funded by the savings of the bot program,” said Tony Sementelli, executive vice president and chief financial officer with Flint Hills Resources. “This has allowed us to advance our desktop enablement tools and set up project teams to work on the modernization of our financial software, as well as our manufacturing plants systems … something that would have resulted in massive fees had we hired outside consulting labor.”

In effect, more capability is being made available at the desktop level, as opposed to being the exclusive purview of an IT department or an external consultant. And employees at Flint Hills Resources and across Koch companies are being given the ability to automate parts of their jobs when it makes sense, which allows them to focus on more valuable and fulfilling tasks.

“It’s a lot more power than people can even imagine,” said Sementelli. “There’s still room for highly skilled IT people to focus on more complicated tasks that drive business value. The actual power of the desktop can offer so much more now.”

Suggested Reading: Koch Disruptive Technologies Ready to Transform

*New York Times, "The Economy is Rigged, and Other Presidential Myths," May 6, 2016.