Navy Bots Boost Business Operations, Supply Chain Readiness

Jul 20, 2021 | DTJ Online

A five-person Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Governance Team was employed August 2020 at Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) Business Systems Center (BSC) to develop and implement software application robots designed to accelerate business operations and improve supply-chain readiness for the Navy.

Less than one year later, multiple bots are in production and saving the Navy time and money by rapidly performing manual, repetitive, labor-intensive tasks with pinpoint accuracy for the NAVSUP Enterprise workforce.

“Our RPA program is providing a sustainable, enterprise-wide capability that improves organizational performance and increases business value. Bots are executing repetitive, manual business data entries on behalf of users, freeing them up to focus on more value-added tasks, and increasing the speed and agility of the Navy supply chain,” said Capt. Gene Cash, commanding officer, NAVSUP BSC.

“Executing IT business processes faster gets supplies to Sailors faster,” said Allison Holle, supervisory information technology (IT) project manager for the RPA Governance Team at NAVSUP BSC. “Using bots, we enhance readiness by improving productivity, increasing the speed and accuracy of supply-chain data throughput, and reducing human error associated with manual processes.”

To keep up with the increased pace of technology, IT experts at NAVSUP BSC are implementing RPA as a modernized tactic to accelerate business processes and deliver relevant capability.

“The speed of technology is not slowing down, and neither is the IT workload,” said Holle.

Robotic process automation is a tool that creates and manages software robots designed to emulate human actions and interact with other information systems. Bots can navigate IT systems, analyze on-screen content, identify and extract data, complete keystrokes, and perform a wide range of defined actions faster and more accurately than humans.

“It’s a short turnaround time to develop an automation,” said Holle. “Teams can typically create them locally within weeks, and they’re completely scalable.”

Efforts to implement RPA at NAVSUP BSC began in 2019 and led to the creation of the RPA Governance Team. The team consists of five IT specialists; two software developers, one subject-matter expert, one business analyst, and one project manager. They’re augmented by a group of 20 contractors that assist the team with software architect and developer duties for projects across the enterprise.

“Our governance has come a long way in a short amount of time. We work with several RPA communities of practice across the Department of the Navy and have stepped in to help others figure out how to start an RPA program and governance model.”

As of July, nine bots are under evaluation and development. Six have been approved and developed and are in production across the enterprise supporting business operations within the Navy’s supply chain.

The Issue Priority Group (IPG) Bot consolidates and sorts National Item Identification Number (NIIN) notes. Each transaction takes approximately 35 seconds to complete. The automation is executing the consolidation of 2,424 backlogged NIINs with multiple notes. The IPG Bot is projected to save approximately 2,500 hours of work annually.

The Ship’s Store Inventory (SSI) Bot enters item quantities in the Retail Operations Management system for monthly and quarterly inventories. The automation is currently performing at the Navy Exchange Command (NEXCOM) Ship’s Store onboard Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, where it has reduced the time needed to close doors for inventory, and increased access to quality-of-life services for authorized patrons. The SSI Bot is projected to save approximately 150 hours of work annually.

“What seemed like an impossible task was a walk in the park for the RPA team,” said Cynthia Beale, Ship’s Store program manager for NEXCOM. “This program not only gives Diego Garcia control to conduct inventories, but it also reduced records keeping time from 12 hours or more to two hours. At the end of the day, the Sailors are the ones that reap the benefit as the Ship’s Store is now capable of resuming normal operations a day earlier.”

The Mail Bot ingests files in a safe and scalable manner to accommodate workloads across different systems and network domains. The bot receives email, extracts metadata, scans and saves email attachments, stores data, and sends email replies. It creates lists that include metadata, date, time, exchange email identification, sender email address, attachments, names, and sizes. Mail Bot was designed to free up personnel from manually checking and processing emailed data across multiple systems while improving auditability, compliance, productivity, scalability, and response time. The projected amount of working hours saved varies depending on usage and application.

The Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) 2.0 Bot enters data from HAZMAT Management spreadsheets to Navy Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). This bot is designed to improve accuracy and auditability while reducing rework from human error. HAZMAT 2.0 Bot is performing at four HAZMAT centers and is slated for implementation at more than 70 locations Navy-wide. The automation is projected to save approximately 6,000 hours of work annually.

“This automation allows our customers to condense what was once was a tedious procedure into a short intuitive process. What took days or weeks to train now takes an hour or so,” said Shane Dreese, Ashore HAZMAT technical lead at NAVSUP Weapons Systems Support (WSS). “Creating the bot was important for NAVSUP WSS because it furthered our drive for process improvement. Not only does it fuel our passion for change, but it gives us great satisfaction knowing that Sailors and the Navy will benefit from its cost and labor savings.”

The Total Record Inventory Management (TRIM) of Letters Bot downloads documents from the Personal Property Transport Audit System and uploads them into Content Manager, the Navy’s system of record for tracking household goods moves. The bot processes an average of 60 records per day, clears record backlogs due to system interruptions, and is projected to save approximately 375 working hours annually.

The Financial Policy and Systems (FMP) Home Guard Bot retrieves and delivers information from Navy ERP to accountants for quarterly audit purposes. The bot is designed to improve audit accuracy, compliance, responsiveness, and productivity. The projected amount of working hours saved varies depending on usage.

Training citizen developers and creating an automation portal have been fundamental to the success of the RPA Governance Team.

“Our portal is a one-stop-shop for RPA throughout the NAVSUP Enterprise. It allows anyone to pitch ideas via an interactive submission process and shows who’s submitting what automations at various commands. You can see where ideas are in the pipeline and throughout various stages of development. This has been a huge success, and we haven’t seen other commands in the Navy come that far yet,” said Holle.

According to Holle, the future state of RPA at NAVSUP includes training citizen developers to stand up RPA centers at each command and the governance team providing centralized services, support, and oversight for command centers and the enterprise.

“Robotic process automation is a powerful tool, but it’s not a tool that NAVSUP BSC needs to use alone,” said Holle. “We want to deliver this tool to commands across the enterprise so they can quickly develop automations that support their mission,” said Holle.

By James Foehl, NAVSUP Business Systems Center

Photo Caption: Sailors assigned to U.S. Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia shop at the Navy Exchange Service Command’s (NEXCOM) ships store ashore. The store supports operational forces forward deployed to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf areas of responsibility. The store utilizes software application robots designed by Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) Business Systems Center (BSC) intended to accelerate business operations and improve supply-chain readiness for the Navy. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stevin Atkins, NAVSUP Business Systems Center/Released.

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