The butterfly effect. In pop culture, it’s a notion that suggests that a small change to an initial condition can have a profound effect on a larger system.
In the case of the Bureau voor Normalisatie (NBN), the Belgian organization for developing and publishing standards, that small change came in the form of a bot based on IBM® Robotic Process Automation software.
The importance of standards can’t be overstated. They improve product and service quality. They drive efficiencies and facilitate trade. And they support national economies and global commerce by leveling the playing field. In Belgium alone, the development and publication of one additional standard, on average, increases Belgium’s gross domestic product (GDP) by EU 2.04 million per year, according to a 2020 study published by VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel).
As Belgium’s national member body of the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), NBN contributes to the development and the publication of European (EN) standards. On average, CEN publishes roughly 1,100 EN standards a year, and NBN publishes all of them as national Belgian standards (NBN EN) as well, per legal mandate.
NBN is also the national member body of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and contributes equally to the development and the publication of ISO standards. Although NBN is not required to implement all ISO standards as Belgian standards (NBN ISO), traditionally it would publish a select few each year. But Belgian industries’ demand for NBN ISO standards has increased in recent years. In 2020, NBN turned its sights to publishing more ISO standards.
Using RPA software, NBN registers 2,150 ISO standards/year, compared to 800 in the past
Time saved using automation software was 650 hours in 2021
The work, however, had to be done manually. Because the existing in-house automation tool was not designed to support ISO standards, NBN needed to gather information and key in ballot information by hand. The process took eight weeks or more, thereby limiting the number of ISO standards NBN could publish each year.
“It was tedious, repetitive work,” says Catherine Michel, NBN’s Production Expert responsible for the publication process. “To register a standard, there are several fields to fill in. Each field has to be copied from a different site or screen, and you have to search for the information. So the risk of making mistakes was high. Moreover, employees couldn’t do this all day because they have other tasks to perform.”
In October 2020, NBN engaged Parplex, a technology firm that specializes in robotic process automation (RPA) software solutions. Ellen Bartholomeeusen, NBN’s Operations Manager, says, “It was important for us to see that Parplex was an IBM Business Partner. And we choose Parplex because they proposed the best solution.”
The collaboration began with a pilot focused on processing a small subset of ballots. In January 2021, after the pilot’s success, Parplex turned its attention to automating the entire process of implementing ISO standards as Belgian standards and configuring the bot, called Otis. Parplex worked iteratively and fine-tuned and validated the bot for each phase. After end-to-end testing, NBN launched Otis in May 2021.
Nordine Vandezande, the owner of Parplex, elaborates: “IBM RPA software has all the features necessary to build a bot and automate NBN’s ballot process. We configured the complete process: creating the ballots and collecting the information from the standards. The bot runs every evening. It functions based on spreadsheets that contain ISO-related metadata, such as the number and description of the standard. By reading the spreadsheets, the bot knows which ballots it needs to create and which ones it needs to close.”
Otis runs on a workstation completely configured by Parplex. It integrates with the in-house product information management (PIM) system, the ISO website and NBN’s software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms. This ensures that the information gets where it belongs in real time.
Ms. Michel adds: “Each morning we immediately see which ballots were implemented correctly — they’re flagged with ‘ok.’ In some cases, the bot can’t fill in a field because the information is missing in the ISO systems or for some other reason. In these cases, the bot highlights that field and human intervention is needed to make a correction or fill it in.”
Ms. Bartholomeeusen also appreciates the solution’s ability to report errors and bugs. “It makes the task easier by showing us what did not work so we can finish the task very quickly,” she says. “I’d say that only 5% of the standards implementations require manual intervention. From a speed and quality point of view, implementing the bot has been a great added value.”
The number of NBN ISO standards published each year has skyrocketed.
Back in 2019, NBN published only 140 NBN ISO standards. In 2020, with support from student interns and five people doing ballot creation, it published 800. But in 2021, using automation technology, it recorded 2,150 NBN ISO standards — a whopping 1,435% increase in just two years.
“Thanks to Parplex we can process a large number of standards,” says Ms. Michel. “When the bot was first launched, we performed tests and discovered exceptions. Each time, Nordine was able to enhance the bot to handle the exceptions, so the bot became better and better.”
She continues: “We’ve made huge progress. By next year, we will have handled the ISO standards that weren’t previously in our catalogue. With IBM automation technology, we’ve accelerated the thoroughness of our standards catalogue, and we will continue our collaboration with Parplex.”
Equally important for NBN is improving data quality and saving time. The center closes about 4,000 national ballots per year. For those ballots related to the development of EN and ISO standards, the agency estimates it saved roughly 150 working hours a year in 2020 and 2021. For NBN ISO standards it saved 500 hours of work in 2021.
“Freeing our workforce from repetitive and tedious tasks is very important for us,” says Ms. Bartholomeeusen. “And customers have faster access to our content.” Ms. Michel concurs: “As an NBN employee, I am very glad that I can concentrate on higher value and more qualitative tasks. So the bot is my best friend.”
Established by law in 2003 and fully active by 2007, NBN (link resides outside of ibm.com) is an agency of Belgium’s national government responsible for facilitating the development, publication and sales of Belgian, European and international standards. It serves a wide range of sectors, including energy, construction, consumer products and more. NBN also provides services to promote the dissemination and use of standards and boasts a portfolio of 42,000 standards. NBN is headquartered in Brussels.
IBM Business Partner Parplex (link resides outside of ibm.com) is an award-winning provider of robotic process automation solutions, services and support. With more than 20 years of experience in process automation, Parplex knows how to avoid common pitfalls and how to help customers successfully implement RPA. Parplex is located in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium.
© Copyright IBM Corporation 2022. IBM Corporation, IBM Cloud, New Orchard Road, Armonk, NY 10504
Produced in the United States of America, August 2022.
IBM, the IBM logo, and ibm.com are trademarks of International Business Machines Corp., registered in many jurisdictions worldwide. Other product and service names might be trademarks of IBM or other companies. A current list of IBM trademarks is available on the web at www.ibm.com/legal/copytrade.
This document is current as of the initial date of publication and may be changed by IBM at any time. Not all offerings are available in every country in which IBM operates.
The performance data and client examples cited are presented for illustrative purposes only. Actual performance results may vary depending on specific configurations and operating conditions. THE INFORMATION IN THIS DOCUMENT IS PROVIDED “AS IS” WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING WITHOUT ANY WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND ANY WARRANTY OR CONDITION OF NON-INFRINGEMENT. IBM products are warranted according to the terms and conditions of the agreements under which they are provided.