We solve: RPA to help reduce food waste

19.5.2022Juha StenforsWe solve

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is nowadays an increasingly used technology for routine tasks. RPA uses different information systems as a normal user would, and can be used to automate different information workflows. In practice, quite often a "robot", which is effectively a single computer with robotics software, is taught a process by doing it in a program as the user would do it. Robotics software also allows extensive use of interfaces and databases, among other things, which are widely supported by these systems.

Fork and knife on a yellow background with some food items.

Food waste is a big problem which calls for new solutions. In Finland, it is said that around €500 million worth of food is currently wasted every year. It is a huge amount, not only because of the money involved, but also because producing food that ends up being waste places an unnecessary burden on the environment, as well.

The restaurants at SAMK campuses have also sought to specify the quantity of food more precisely to better meet the demand.  The number of potential customers in the restaurants can vary from a few dozen to more than two thousand, depending on the day and time of the academic year. The problem for obtaining the data was that the number of students was not directly available in one system as a report. In addition, there was no way of obtaining all the information from the systems that contained the necessary data on the data interfaces. Therefore, software robotics had to be used to solve the problem.

In the case of SAMK, the necessary information is in the teaching management system and the work order system, i.e. the timetable. In version 1.0 of the Waste Robot, the process is roughly as follows:

  1. Retrieve one week's work schedule for one campus in a spreadsheet.
  2. Filter the list to include only events that are on campus and between 10:00 and 14:00.
  3. Retrieve the number of students approved for implementation from the Instructional Management System.
  4. Add up the number of students for each day of the week.
  5. Compile an e-mail message with this information to be sent to the restaurant manager once a week. Below is an example of one week's report.

Pori campus week 14

Monday 2164
Tuesday 2340
Wednesday 2678
Thursday 1773
Friday 2006
Saturday 92

Based on this information, the restaurant manager has made a comparison between the daily customers and the number of students at the campus and has made his own estimates of what the food demand is on any given day. The problem with this first version is that it does not take into account students who attend more than one educational event on campus at the time of reporting. This figure cannot be fully accurate because, in the systems, students are not treated at the individual level but at the group level.  Another challenge is the speed of the processing as a large number of events have to be entered into the software interface as the user would do it, which is relatively slow. In addition, especially for web browser-based systems, there are delays in ensuring that the interface is fully loaded into the display.

The next version of the waste robot should not only address the problems mentioned above, but also try to make the process less dependent on the user interface. The challenge of operating in the UI is the potential change of the operating environment, where the robot may no longer detect the desired UI element. This problem can be avoided if, for example, the robot is able to retrieve data directly from the system database or, alternatively, if interfaces are defined in the system to retrieve data.


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