When Bots Decide: Process Automation at Villeroy & Boch

German ceramics manufacturer Villeroy & Boch is using SAP Intelligent Robotic Process Automation (SAP Intelligent RPA) and SAP AI Business Services to automate simple, repetitive tasks. The bots that handle these tasks are quick and easy to build and implement because they do not require any changes to the existing IT infrastructure.

Villeroy & Boch has been manufacturing porcelain and ceramic goods for more than 270 years – since 1748, to be precise. Today, the company employs almost 7,500 people, generated revenues of over €800 million in 2019, and sells its products in more than 125 countries. A business with such a long tradition – and its eyes set firmly on the future – needs one thing above all: a willingness to continuously embrace change and evolve.

That applies, of course, not just to the products a company sells, but also to its business processes. Villeroy & Boch began operating its first serial production line back in 1767 and opened a state-of-the-art, mechanized dinnerware factory in 1801. Manufacturing has obviously come a long way between those early days and the introduction of intelligent robotic process automation. But there are parallels: Now, just as then, innovative machines aim to free staff from the burden of repetitive tasks and reduce the risk of human error.

Many More Potential Use Cases

SAP Intelligent RPA leverages capabilities of autonomous software robots – “bots” – and artificial intelligence (AI). The bot in daily use at Villeroy & Boch, for example, reads incoming e-mails, scans the attachments, uses trained algorithms to classify them, and saves them to the correct location. The system automatically distinguishes between invoices and payment reminders, meaning that employees no longer need to open those documents and classify them manually. In this way, the Document Classification service – part of SAP AI Business Services – automatically prepares documents for further processing by employees.

At Villeroy & Boch, the technology now works in “unattended” mode, meaning that it completes tasks without human intervention and monitoring. The time saved is significant; the machine checks between 20 and 30 emails every day, and that number is rising.

“It was important for us, aside from leveraging the intelligent RPA functions, to be able to make decisions based on unstructured data as well. A combination of Document Classification and SAP Intelligent RPA makes that possible,” says Daniel Neuhäuser, head of ERP Core Solutions at Villeroy & Boch. The fact that a subscription for SAP AI Business Service could be easily purchased on SAP Store was another point in its favor.

Making Bots Even More Intelligent

Although there are currently no forerunners to learn from – Villeroy & Boch is the first SAP customer to use the automatic Document Classification service – Neuhäuser sees still more potential for robotic process automation with intelligent services at his company, such as in finance, customer service, and purchasing.

To enhance the existing bot, he and his colleagues are already testing another SAP AI Business Service, Document Information Extraction. This service allows the bot to read documents that have been classified, extract business-relevant information from them (invoice numbers, vendor names, and so on), and enrich this information with additional master data (such as business partner numbers). In the medium term, the company could use this service as a foundation to enable automated invoice processing and posting in SAP ERP.

“We Reach Our Goals Much Faster”

For Neuhäuser, there are two compelling benefits to RPA, the use of bots, and SAP AI Business Services. First, bots can be built and deployed without changing the existing IT infrastructure. Second, bot-building requires less effort and expertise than conventional software development.

“We don’t need ERP experts for this,” he says. “What we need most of all are bot developers. And we reach our goals much faster.” This is because key users are involved right from the start, and their feedback is channeled continuously into the development process, which means that the application is ready to go live very quickly.

And what part does the IT department play? “We follow a mixed development approach,” says Neuhäuser. “Sometimes IT is more closely involved, sometimes less. But the people who will use the solution always play a key role in development from the get-go.”

Low Effort, High Impact

SAP Intelligent RPA helps optimize autonomous bots with artificial intelligence. Because it removes the need for human intervention after every step, this technology enables significant time savings. Also, it can be developed without changing the existing IT landscape – and without ERP expertise. SAP Intelligent RPA helps to relieve teams from the burden of recurring administrative tasks, creating a long-lasting impact with comparatively little effort.


This story originally appeared on the SAP Germany News Center.
Top image courtesy of Villeroy & Boch.