Driving Productivity with Artificial Intelligence

By Epicor Software

Artificial intelligence (AI) used to be considered a futuristic wonder. Today, it’s being employed in one form or another throughout every industry.

In fact, the technology is advancing so rapidly that 40% of top-performing companies ranked AI as “game-changing technology” in 2018—a huge jump from just 7% the prior year, according to Gartner, Inc.

AI—and its critical components of machine learning, natural language processing, and cognitive computing—enables the unique product marketing power at Amazon, the pinpoint accuracy in global positioning system (GPS) tracking, and competitive planning at airlines in determining which destinations should be added to the schedule over the months ahead.

The continually evolving technology behind AI comes in many forms and is used in many ways depending on the goals, needs, and size of a particular business. But nowhere is it more critical than in distribution—a key driver behind every sector of product commerce from industrial through retail.

It is transforming the entire distribution sector in a variety of ways—not the least of which is in predictive analytics to drive sales and deliver a better overall customer experience.

While most distributors have a basic understanding of how this technology can be a valuable tool in boosting sales, many may not realize the significant cost cutting, productivity, and bottom-line benefits to be gained internally at their business operations.

Today’s highly sophisticated software options allow modern distributors to monitor real-time market events—including fluctuations in local product demand—so they can adjust purchasing levels accordingly and build unparalleled efficiency into inventory and warehouse management.

Those same forward-thinking distributors also automatically capture and analyze enormous amounts of high-quality internal, customer, and supplier data in order to streamline internal business processes and improve productivity throughout their operations—another major step toward building efficiency and cutting operational costs.

Streamlining Internal Processes

As AI technology continues to advance, it can help distributors improve productivity by eliminating repetitive tasks that traditionally have been handled by staff. This allows employees to spend time on more critical and cost-effective roles and duties.

Meanwhile, manual data management tasks will be reduced by 45% through the end of 2020—aided by machine learning and automated service level management.

Many distributors are already using breakthrough systems that collect, sort, group, summarize, and drill down massive amounts of data—quickly and efficiently—to boost accuracy and productivity. However, Epicor recently pushed the needle way forward with the introduction of Epicor Virtual Agent (EVA)—a new AI digital system designed to help automate ERP processes and integrate perfectly within the latest version of Prophet 21.

EVA is not the first AI virtual assistant to hit the market, but—according to Cindy Jutras, president of the ERP consulting firm Mint Jutras—Epicor is getting into the game early.

“I’ve been seeing demos of these AI virtual assistants for a couple years now, but many are still in prototype stage and not in production. But I think, in the next few years, these are going to be a must-have feature,” Jutras said. “I like that EVA is being considered a feature and Epicor is not charging extra for it, and I like the practical applications they showed.”

Once EVA is enabled in the Prophet 21 system, the user only needs to launch the EVA app on an Android or iOS mobile device to get answers to questions anytime, anywhere—right at their fingertips. EVA doesn’t require users to navigate menus, and there’s no need to wait to access the full Prophet 21 application. It’s also context-aware via natural language processing, so user commands can be brief, and EVA will understand what they mean based on what was said before.

EVA works to automate a wide range of tasks—from the mundane, to the much more complex. It’s powered in part by Microsoft Azure AI™ services—an affordable cloud solution that makes AI and cognitive technologies accessible and scalable for companies of all sizes.

Artificial Intelligence— Why Wait?

AI-enhanced software provides distributors with a number of benefits— including customized billing methods, the ability to monitor stock levels on a real-time basis, eliminate excessive inventory, and coordinate purchasing, pricing, delivery, and accounts receivable.

Taking AI to the next level, Gartner estimates that by 2022, more than half of major new business systems will incorporate “continuous intelligence” with real-time analytics integrated into business operations, processing current, and historical data in order to prescribe actions and improve decisions. Gartner describes continuous intelligence as being at the heart of fast-paced digital business and process optimization—leveraging decision automation, AI, real-time analytics, and event data.

In a recent Forbes Insights survey of senior business executives, 79% said that AI is already having “a transformational impact on workflows and tools for knowledge workers, but only 5% of executives consider their companies to be industry-leading in terms of taking advantage of AI-powered processes.”

The survey, “Everyday AI: Harnessing Artificial Intelligence to Empower the Knowledge Worker,” was conducted in association with Microsoft.

Analysts reviewing the results see a clear similarity to the way cloud technology made its debut and gained wide acceptance by business leaders—“Slow at first, but then quick, widespread implementation.” That sounds like a clear signal to distributors and others—many of whom eyed the cloud with great skepticism and reluctance 10 years ago—that now is the time to get onboard with AI, machine learning, and all the efficiency, productivity, cost savings, and competitive opportunities already achievable with this proven technology.

Why wait? Embarking on a comprehensive, market-leading AI strategy today can place proactive distributors well ahead of lagging competitors for many years to come.

To read the full whitepaper, click here.