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Cloud computing, distributed ledger technology, machine learning, the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) are among the technologies the Polaris Transportation Group is looking to deploy to become a tech leader in the transportation sector.
In May 2019, the company’s in-house incubator set up its newest company, NorthStar Digital Solutions, through which Polaris has deployed robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning, IoT and AI to consolidate and automate antiquated systems.
Discussing how the company began its digital transformation, Polaris chief technology officer (CTO) Dave Brajkovich says: “We had gaps in our technology. The CEO reorganised the business. We needed to get digitised and catch up with technology.”
When Brajkovich joined the firm 18 months ago, there were many areas of the business that relied heavily on manual processes, he says. “I immediately realised there was a lot of manual administration work being done. They were very mundane tasks. Lots of people thought they were doing the right thing, but there were also lots of silos across the business and a lot of inefficiencies, such as one area of the business had more work than another part.”
“We won’t be replaced by machines any time soon”
Dave Brajkovich, Polaris Transportation
Automation is often associated with reducing the work that people have to do, potentially leading to job cuts. But for Brajkovich, bots enable people to work more creatively.
“We won’t be replaced by machines any time soon,” he says. “We will integrate and automate where we can, and let people work on the client relationship, answer phones and value add. We are trying to utilise our people and boost human capital. People work hard and bring value to the business.”
Brajkovich’s goal is to provide a platform that should enable Polaris to run straight-through processing, avoiding the incumbent inefficiencies in manually handling freight paperwork.
The company operates cross-border freight services across the US and Canada and selected WorkFusion to automate customs handling, a heavily paper-based manual task. “We focused on customs document processing because we deal with a lot of customs paperwork, which takes a lot of effort and is a monumental task,” says Brajkovich. “Eight to 10 people touch these documents every day.”
Given the nature of the business, Polaris deals with 1,000 to 1,500 customs documents a day, says Brajkovich. “Our non-intelligent OCR [optical character recognition] system didn’t do the job,” he says. “We couldn’t get to a point where we could handle customs with a straight-through process system.”
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According to Brajkovich, Polaris selected WorkFusion because it wanted a technology platform that could automate with process and become part of the company’s DNA. The platform also needed to offer application programming interface (API) connectivity and integration with the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
The platform uses machine learning to understand any extra conditions in the customs documents that may require extra attention. “We manage by exception and use machine learning to teach the bot what it needs to look out for,” says Brajkovich.
An example of where an exception may be raised is when a document suggests that the product being shipped via Polaris may require an extra compliance check, such as if contains the acronym FDA – the US Food and Drugs Administration.
“The system learns and adjusts to change with minimal input and is able to scale,” says Brajkovich.
The road ahead
With North Star Solutions, the company has embarked on multiple routes to deliver digitisation and make IT another aspect of the business model, says Brajkovich. As such, the company has a blockchain hyperledger programme to provide integration with the outside world.
“We are working with our delivery partners, hooking up the ability to pass through orders from system to system, using the hyperledger as a base,” he says. “We want to be able to take data from one system and push that data to the client’s system. What happens is that the hyperledger becomes a common document with auditability and traceability.”
Brajkovich believes that combining the hyperledger platform with RPA can make a huge step forward in straight-through processing of cross-border shipments, which normally require paperwork for customs checks. “When we work with a customs broker, we take the customs paperwork from the client, process it to make sure everything is in order, and pass it on to the customs broker,” he says.
The link with the external world, outside Polaris, is via paperwork, he adds. “The paperwork from the client goes into our data stores. But we push paper back to the customs broker, which then processes it in its own system.”
The company is working on a project to eliminate this manual process, says Brajkovich. “It will enable us to share an API with the customs broker. No one will have to verify the data, which means we should be able to clear freight more quickly.”