WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, Ohio (AFLCMC) – Four squadrons on base are exploring the use of robotic process automation software to accelerate dozens of time-intensive, manual processes.
The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s 21st Intelligence Squadron has teamed with the 88th Communications Squadron, 14th Intelligence Squadron, and the AFLCMC headquarters staff for a pathfinder event to identify ways UiPath automation software could help the organizations save time.
“In great power competition, time is one of the most important resources,” said Lt Col Jonathan Saas, 21st Intelligence Squadron Commander. “Just 11 wasted minutes saved each work day adds up to 40 hours of lost productivity annually. In times of crisis, what would a Commander pay to have had just one more week to prepare?”
From April 19-23, more than 70 Airmen met with trainers from UiPath and Invoke Inc learned how to design and use “software bots” to automate repetitive, mundane processes.
“I think this is accessible to anyone,” said 2d Lt Arianna Lemieux, who helped coordinate the training.
The training takes advantage of 50,000 software licenses the Air Force purchased and are now available to every Airman in the “software center” on their NIPR computer, and is available on SIPR and JWICS as well.
In addition to the training aspect, there was a simultaneous effort to develop and rapidly operationalize bots.
“We sent 35 individuals and created over 15 bots onsite during the training and many more bots are currently in the works,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Crepeau, 88th Communications Squadron commander. “Our organization is perfect for Robotic Process Automation as we have a large number of repeatable tasks such as customer ticket creation, cloning computer systems, configuring network hardware, and countless administrative tasks such as EPR/OPR processing.”
For the administrative tasks, Crepeau hopes to take advantage of bots already created around the Air Force since most squadron administrative tasks are the same across all units.
“Licenses are provided by the Air Force, but we used Squadron Innovation Funds to bring in the UiPath and Invoke Inc trainers and developers in order to accelerate the Digital Wingman concept with our squadron, and hopefully be a model for others around Wright-Patterson who are interested in creating bots as well,” Crepeau said. “A few thousand dollars of investment now will hopefully save us thousands of man-hours which can in turn be refocused on better customer support around the base.”
Automation developers partnered with our subject matter experts to operationalize processes with the highest return on investment, according to Saas.
One bot in development during the week focused on checking the accuracy of personnel records transferred from an old personnel security database to a new one. Under the old process, thousands of records had to validated one-by-one and then be manually updated if errors were found – a painstaking and time consuming process. The first version of the bot was developed in three days and what would have taken weeks for a human to do alone, the bot was able to churn through in minutes, identifying records between the two systems that did not transfer accurately.
“We built this automation to try and fix a local problem, with the vision that it could save time not just for our Squadron, but across the entire Air Force,” Saas said.
Robotic process automation has a wide variety of applications from business processes to operations. Examples include in-processing new personnel, compiling maintenance data, scraping websites, filling out paperwork and .pdfs, automatic e-mail notifications, reconciling personnel or financial records, automating flying schedules, and much more. Many of these applications have been seen in multiple versions of the Air Force’s Digital Wingman competition. Bots developed at one location can be exported across the Department of the Air Force to address common processes, save time, reduce errors, and improve customer service timeliness and satisfaction, all of which can free up Airmen to address more complicated and non-standard problems that can’t be automated, and help workers achieve better work and life balance.
Airman 1st Class Chadwick Townsend, 88th Communications Squadron, has some background in programming and worked with 21st IS security personnel to create automations.
“This workshop was an amazing opportunity to connect with both military and civilian personnel. UiPath offers us the capability to work in small groups, with differing coding experience, and still be able to tackle problems at a rapid pace. To me, that’s what really makes this software so exciting,” Townsend said.
At the end of the week-long training and co-development workshop, more than 20 automations were in various stages of development. Automation projects in these four squadrons have the potential to save thousands of hours each year, allowing military and civilians alike to focus on tasks that require greater human discernment. This will build on the already existing early success from AFLCMC/DSH Section Commander, Lt. Col. Wendell Toney and his team. An early adopter of Robotic Process Automation, DSH has used UiPath bots to automate readiness and administrative reporting, transforming a three-person process into a bot that runs continuously and is projected to save more than 720 hours annually.
“The National Defense Strategy and the CSAF’s Accelerate Change or Lose vision acknowledge that our military advantage as an Air Force, as a joint team, and as a nation is eroding,” Saas said. “Through the power of automation, hundreds of thousands of Airmen augmented by hundreds or thousands of virtual bots can help slow or reverse current declines in U.S. military advantage. The time we save through automation can be reinvested into enhancing training and operational efficiency and effectiveness, helping to sharpen our competitive edge in great power competition and future conflict.”