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Orbis plans for robotics university and bot squads


Mark Say Managing Editor

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A local authority shared service partnership is setting up an informal ‘bot university’ to encourage council employees to begin developing robotics for business processes.

Orbis, which provides shared services for Surrey and East Sussex County Councils and Brighton and Hove City Council, is also working on the idea of ‘bot squads’ to expand on its current work in the field.

Simon Pollock (pictured), assistant director of business operations for Orbis, outlined the plans at UKAuthority’s March of the Bots event late last week.

He said it has been working on robotics since the summer of last year when it began to see robotic process automation (RPA) move towards the mainstream of government processes, and has been developing projects internally.

Surrey Council is currently piloting the bot university, which Pollock emphasised is a process rather than a formal institution, with the other two councils soon to send teams.

“What we want is for people to come in for two or three weeks, learn about robotics, learn about where we have got to, go back to their organisations and begin building robots in their own bot labs,” Pollock said. “It’s a kind of franchise idea, licensed through a central hub.

“We’re also trying to build a document repository, so nothing goes live unless it is fully documented and anything that is changed is documented. We’re expecting a turnover in this area as it is a new market and people will go off and get jobs elsewhere.”

Teams of five

He said the bot squads will comprise teams of five, including a business analyst and process engineer who go into service areas to look at whether the processes can be automated. If possible, the three robotics engineers develop a bot.

“A good thing about the bot squad is you can cost it,” he said. “With a group of five people it’s easy to work out what it costs for a month, so if you have an internal charging mechanism in your organisation you can build this and send out the charge. If you work with customers and partners you can do the same.

“So we’re looking at expanding the robots team in modules of five.”

He added that this could involve taking on an apprentice as a member of every team, saying that school leavers with some coding skills are well placed to learn quickly on how to develop robotics.

Of the processes managed by Orbis, 13 are now using RPA with six are due to go live this week. Its target is to automate 6% of all processes by the end of the year, but Pollock said it should not lead to any job losses as staff turnover is at around 13%.

300 plus processes

The Orbis robotics team began by building their own robots using UiPath software, and has been identifying processes for automation through a series of workshops with the councils’ staff. This has created a pipeline of more than 300, although some have been dropped after an initial assessment suggested it would be difficult to automate them.

Pollock said the effort has also proved the case for big time and cost savings: while it was taking a human operative an average of 20 minutes to clear a case in the backlog, the team’s first robot was able to do so in six seconds, and could keep working without evenings and weekends off.

“We worked out that if we overspent on the robotics team at the beginning of the year we could save a lot of money by the end of the year,” he said, adding that each project needs a business case that is brutally honest about which job positions could be lost through the automation.

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