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FRCE boosts efficiency with Successful Robotic Process Automation Project

14 November 2023

From Joe Andes

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. — Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) recently wrapped up a successful robotic process automation project that helps enhance the depot’s efficiency in delivering parts, components and aircraft to the warfighter. 

An in-house team created bots specifically designed to automate tasks within FRCE’s Comptroller Department. Bots are programmable software robots that automate repetitive tasks in a digital environment.

“The work our team is doing directly contributes to FRC East’s ability to support the Fleet faster and more efficiently,” said FRCE Commanding Officer Capt. James M. Belmont. “The bots the team created are a force multiplier for us. This is a great example of the creativity and innovative thinking that is propelling FRC East forward into the future.”

Earlier this year, FRCE successfully implemented a bot that automatically extracts information from a wide range of records and documents and then enters this data into the depot’s financial system. This initial project has already saved the Comptroller Department nearly seven weeks of labor related to data entry tasks.

FRCE is now gearing up to implement two additional bots. One is aimed at reducing the manpower required to process employee clocking data while the other focuses on increasing efficiency related to the creation of outgoing funding documents. Depot officials believe these bots could potentially save thousands of labor hours.

“With the current geopolitical environment, working and using our resources efficiently is more critical now than it's ever been,” said Anderson Braswell, who helmed the depot’s robotic process automation team. “It's inefficient to have our people bogged down doing repetitive tasks. By automating this work, we free them up to do more strategic analysis and perform other complex tasks.”

Braswell, who served as budget officer at FRCE before recently transferring to another assignment within Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), said bots were historically created at the NAVAIR level for use within the enterprise, with depots providing input regarding their specific needs.

The depot’s Information Systems Division worked closely with NAVAIR to enable FRCE personnel to utilize robotic process automation technology in-house, he explained, which was instrumental in streamlining the creation of bots suited specifically for the needs of the depot.

“We have the actual users designing the bot itself,” said Braswell. “We're bringing everything down to the most basic level. I think that's going to pay off and become the new model for the future because no one understands the process you’re trying to automate better than the person who literally does it every day.”

According to Braswell, FRCE’s in-house team consists of personnel selected from the depot’s Comptroller Department and Information Systems Division.

“We come up with the ideas and processes of what we need to do,” said Braswell. “Information Systems are the technical experts. By working together, we came up with a process for how to build our own homegrown bots and how to get those published to where everybody in the Navy can use them.”

In addition to the expertise provided by the Information Systems Division, Braswell cited the simplicity of the automation software as a key factor in enabling personnel from the Comptroller Department to design and create bots.

“You don't have to be a computer programmer to do it,” said Braswell. “It offers two options. You can either look at it in code – which is what Information Systems team usually does. There's also a graphical user interface that you can use that is very user friendly and works more like a flowchart.”

The bot FRCE put into use earlier this year to automatically extract information from financial documents was originally created at NAVAIR. Braswell said the RPA team modified it specifically for use at the depot. Within 10 months, this bot saved FRCE more than seven weeks of labor hours.

This success inspired the team to create a truly home-grown bot designed to reduce labor hours related to processing employee timekeeping. Nearly complete, Braswell expects this bot to be implemented at FRCE in the very near future. He said the team immediately went to work on yet another bot, which is also nearing completion, aimed at streamlining the creation of outgoing funding documents at the depot.

“Since all the documents are coming from us, a lot of this work is very repetitive,” said Braswell. “Any time you have a repetitive process, you can handle that with a bot. If it's repetitive and not very complex, it's a perfect candidate for automation.”

Ryan Jones, a command business financial manager at FRCE and member of the team, said the depot’s Comptroller Department is an ideal testbed for the creation and design of bots.

“With more than 4,000 employees, there is a massive amount of data that needs to be processed on a regular basis,” said Jones. “There's tons of clocking, expenditure and financial data to look at. Reports that need to be done. This work is crucial because it all coincides with the maintenance, repair and overhaul work done at the depot. It takes a lot of manpower to do all of this.”

Jones was an early champion and adopter of bots and automation at FRCE. In 2019, FRCE began using the technology to streamline the labor correction process. The success of this effort was the catalyst that resulted in the creation of the in-house team.

“It saved thousands of labor hours and allowed the office to spend more time analyzing, reporting and making corrections,” said Jones. “It made us realize that if just two people could do this, imagine what a whole team could accomplish.”

Moving forward, Jones said the lessons the team has learned enhancing efficiency within the Comptroller Department will benefit the entire depot.

“Efficiency is something that every department is trying to optimize,” said Jones. “Anything we can do to speed up processes makes other departments realize that they too can use this technology. If you have a task that's taking too long, and there's a way to speed that up, we have the tools to make things more efficient.”

Braswell agreed and said embracing process automation technology and using it creatively will be crucial as FRCE prepares for the future.

“The way we do business today is not the way we're going to do business tomorrow,” Braswell said. “We can’t remain static– we need to think outside of the box and figure things out now. You can't be afraid to explore the art of the possible.”

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