In 1965 four Irish creameries formed a joint venture with Express Dairies to found Carbery Group. It’s now a global company with an HQ in Ireland and an ambitious digital transformation program. Owned by the farmers of west Cork, it offers the very best nutritional ingredients, flavors and natural cheeses to customers worldwide, all underpinned by automation.

Farming isn’t just a job – it’s a way of life. A vocation that runs in families and is at the heart of communities throughout the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s resistant to change. In fact, agriculture is at the forefront of scientific advancement and sustainability. It’s also an intensive role that requires lots of manual work and attention to factors as diverse as weather, political upheaval, the wellbeing of livestock and market fluctuations.

This means the 1,220 farmers who own dairy company and food manufacturer, Carbery, are fastidious when it comes to getting every bit of value from their efforts. Which is why running the business as efficiently as possible is central to everything it does.

Achieving this in the modern age requires digital transformation, something Micheál McGrath, global robotic process automation (RPA) lead knows all about. “When I joined in 2016, my task was to introduce a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, followed by complementary software such as an expense management solution,” he recalls.

This set the scene for an overhaul of IT throughout the business, with the next step being RPA. “There were lots of manual tasks being undertaken, especially in finance,” McGrath continues. “Specifically, the accounts payable team was managing vendor statement reconciliation manually.” This is the process of validating supplier invoices on the Carbery system to ensure any missing documentation is identified proactively.

“I’d seen first-hand how RPA had revolutionized operations in a previous role and instantly knew it could make a huge difference for Carbery as part of our extensive digital transformation program. Not only in terms of solving a single problem, but in driving digital transformation across the whole enterprise.”

Anthony O'Callaghan, CIO, Carbery Group

A lightbulb moment

It was a huge burden on the department. Up to 200 statements each month had to be checked, taking up to eight days for one person to complete. It often backed up into a mammoth quarterly task. “We were working out how to tackle the issue when we had a lightbulb moment,” McGrath remembers. “Our new group CIO, Anthony O’Callaghan, suggested automation, having used the technology in the past.”

“I’d seen first-hand how RPA had revolutionized operations in a previous role and instantly knew it could make a huge difference for Carbery as part of our extensive digital transformation program,” O’Callaghan adds. “Not only in terms of solving a single problem, but in driving digital transformation across the whole enterprise.”

McGrath went about investigating his options. “We didn’t just want to try it out,” he says. “We wanted to get it right and show benefits from day one.” This led to a procurement process where Carbery chose Tquila Automation to deploy UiPath technology. “We looked at another vendor, but the costs quickly escalated. We considered a big consultancy firm, but knew we’d need a flexible and agile partner that could grow with us. We also needed a team that could expand into the US. Tquila was able to support this.”

Proof-of-concept

The initial proof-of-concept (PoC) automation used document understanding and optical character recognition (OCR) to digitize the 200 statements that had previously been processed by a team member. It then logged into the ERP system to collate the list of open supplier invoices into one report.

The PoC is estimated to have cut the time taken to 1.5 days a month while also allowing staff to become proactive, heading off issues with suppliers and improving supplier relations. After the introduction of the robot, staff only had to deal with exceptions and could ensure creditor balances were accurate.

“People are now on first-name terms with the robot. I got a call from someone the other day, asking if I was Christy’s boss. It helps start a conversation and reduces worries.”

Micheál McGrath, Global RPA Lead, Carbery Group

Introducing Christy

It was a great success, although not without challenges. “The Tquila team was careful to explain that introducing RPA requires tact. People can worry a robot will take their job. In fact, when I explained the plan to the accounts payable staff, I could see eyes widening. People were wondering what might happen,” McGrath says.

However, he had a good relationship with the team and was able to explain the implementation aimed to make their working lives better. It would automate commoditized but important tasks allowing them to focus on higher value add activities which also resulted in a more enjoyable role for the team member.

It worked. Although McGrath is keen to point out that one conversation wasn’t enough in his view. He kept reiterating the message and assuring people the technology was being used to help them, not replace them. He used a tried and tested tactic to support this, naming the robots to make them relatable – more like digital colleagues.

As a big Irish sports fan, he called the first one Christy Ring, after the famous Irish hurler. “It makes the whole process easier,” he says. “People are now on first-name terms with the robot. I got a call from someone the other day, asking if I was Christy’s boss. It helps start a conversation and reduces worries.”

Scaling RPA

With a successful implementation up and running, Carbery kept its RPA focus on the finance team, creating further automations to solidify support for the technology and build a strong case for its use globally.

“Our second use of RPA was for invoice processing. The financial controller had seen the benefits of the software and was keen to have more. He had a challenge with invoices taking too long to go into the system owing to a labor-intensive procedure. We automated it.”

In doing so, the team uncovered a complex process that should have been quite straightforward. “We were able to review what was being done and improve the method while also boosting productivity,” McGrath says.

Going global

Before long, RPA took off globally. With a new CFO in the US who had RPA experience, automations were working across the entire group. There are now two robots running 30 processes – and each robot is only at 60 per cent capacity, illustrating the huge amount of work they can do.

  • One validates test results for each production run against a specification sheet.
  • Another creates the ‘make sheet’ instructions operators need for each production run.
  • A further robot oversees training compliance and scheduling, prompting managers to take responsibility for their teams’ skill development.

“We even have a robot that oversees freight accruals,” McGrath explains. This process ensures freight costs are recorded accurately. “Sometimes there can be as much as €5 million in costs that we need to deal with. The robot downloads import tariffs, creates POs, and receipts so that costs are accurate on the system.”

The fruits of automation

Overall, the results have been impressive. Carbery has managed to remove thousands of hours of manual work and supported employees to contribute higher value work (for them and the group).

But this success has been no accident. The business has carefully planned and managed it. Carbery now has a small, but effective RPA Centre of Excellence (CoE). “I oversee governance and management, while we also have an in-house developer and Tquila’s managed services for maintenance,” McGrath adds.

“The developer can take on many of the smaller automations while Tquila supports with the larger processes.” The CoE also has an RPA steering committee that includes group CIO O’Callaghan and Tquila senior leadership. It reviews new automations and provides sign-off.

Planning for the future

With lots in the pipeline, this well-planned approach will continue. “In the coming year, we expect to expand the program across our operations in Europe and Asia,” McGrath enthuses.

“We’ll also introduce task mining to understand where automation opportunities lie and begin creating citizen developers to help embed RPA into the business.” This is the concept of frontline staff creating their own smaller automations using low- and no-code software within the governance framework of the CoE.

“Our developer spent five dedicated days training with Tquila and has access to the UiPath academy. This was invaluable. So much so that she actually re-coded previously developed automations.”

Micheál McGrath, Global RPA Lead, Carbery Group

Words of advice

When asked what advice he’d give to others beginning their automation journey, McGrath says he has three points to make. “First, get a good partner, such as Tquila. If you don’t have automation experience, which businesses of our size often don’t, get it. Even if you’re planning on creating automations using low- and no-code software, you’ll need help.”

“And that partner needs to be flexible, offering managed services, training, technical and strategic advice, and time to answer questions. They also need the best software, which we get from UiPath. This must be matched with global reach.”

“Secondly, look ahead,” he says from experience. “Plan how many automations you aim to develop and build a team to achieve it – both with support from a partner and in-house. Finally, get the resources and space to train your people. Our developer spent five dedicated days training with Tquila and has access to the UiPath academy. This was invaluable. So much so that she actually re-coded previously developed automations. Going forward, it means we have the skills to start as we mean to go on and get value from what we do.”

Which is something the farmers of west Cork would be proud of. Building solid foundations, working hard and questioning the value of everything is something they know a thing or two about. It’s part of the farming mindset; challenging costs, improving yields and doing the right thing.

Only by doing so, will the business they own continue to offer the very best they can to the global markets they serve.

Time to delve deeper into automation? Get in touch with Tquila.