Fast and no need for coffee breaks: ‘Robots’ take over mundane tasks at Singapore banks

Fast and no need for coffee breaks: ‘Robots’ take over mundane tasks at Singapore banks

A man walking past OCBC and UOB automated bank tellers
A man walking past OCBC and UOB automated bank tellers. (File photo: Reuters)

SINGAPORE: Since starting work at the United Overseas Bank’s (UOB) trade finance operations team three weeks ago, Amy has been busy processing requests for letters of credit from the bank’s corporate clients.

Despite the wide-ranging data that needed to be extracted and entered into the bank’s back office system, Amy is a fast worker who does not even stop for coffee breaks, according to her colleagues.

For a task that used to take up to 240 seconds to complete, Amy takes just 40 seconds.

It is unsurprising that the newcomer has been warmly welcomed by her colleagues even though she is hardly seen in the office.

Amy is a software “robot” powered by robotic process automation (RPA).

In face of a digital revolution, global banks have been increasingly getting into the game of robotics as they craft new products and services for digital-savvy customers, as well as they chase for greater speed, productivity and cost efficiencies.

Apart from humanoid robots used for physical tasks and artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots, RPA – the use of software to automate manual and repetitive operational tasks and processes, such as data extraction and data entry – is one technology that banks are increasingly embracing, according to experts.

“RPA is targeted at automating these activities often with greater speed, availability, efficiency, accuracy, compliance and without the typical elements of a human workforce such as hours of operating, breaks and leave,” said Mr Shaun Ryan, PwC’s digital & emerging technology consulting leader for Southeast Asia.

“The digital workforce can be 24/7.”


Apart from the trade finance operations team, employees at UOB who were previously reviewing credit card applications as part of the unsecured loan processing function also receive additional help.

Eve the “robot” helps to comb through information on an applicant’s Central Provident Fund statement to compute one’s annual income. With the ability to handle up to 1,800 applications per day, she is 3.5 times faster than human counterparts.

Given that the lender receives millions of transaction requests daily, the speed and accuracy at which robots can process these transactions pave the way for faster response, said Mr Lim Ann Liat, managing director and head of markets and enterprise technology at UOB’s group technology and operations.

By having these “virtual employees” take over repetitive and time-consuming mundane tasks, Mr Lim added that employees can now focus on more stimulating and challenging roles which are more fulfilling.

Moving forward, UOB plans to roll out more of such technologies in the coming months for other processes relating to card operations, cash management and trade and remittance.


Meanwhile, over at another local bank OCBC, two “robots”, nicknamed Bob and Zac, have also begun work.

Since last month, one has been assisting the consumer secured lending team with home loans restructuring, and has slashed processing time by 97 per cent.

The role, which involves an employee executing 199 process steps while toggling across five systems and 27 screens for one application, used to take more than 45 minutes to complete. Now, it takes just one minute.

The other “robot” is assigned to the finance team to help with sales performance reporting – a task that took 120 minutes when handled by one bank employee. The robot needs just 12 minutes.

Developed over a 12-week partnership with an external company, Bob and Zac are OCBC’s “second generation of RPA” that were being deployed within the bank, said Mr Pranav Seth, head of e-business, business transformation and fintech and innovation group at OCBC.

The second-biggest bank in Singapore has been experimenting with robots for over one and a half years, and the first batch of virtual robots was sent to its contact center last year to enhance back-end processing.

“Staff handling the repetitive tasks are happier, more productive and this improves job satisfaction. The management teams, for example, our sales management team, is now able to make quicker and better decisions as information and reports get to them in a more timely manner,” he added.

While both local banks declined to reveal how much cost savings they have reaped from the use of RPA, PwC’s Mr Ryan estimates that it could be more than 25 per cent reduction in operational costs and other “intangible benefits throughout the value chain”, such as the ability to scale, reduced risk and fraud, improved service and employee experience.

He added that banks stand to reap more rewards if they can “strategically” combine other technologies, including machine learning and natural language processing.

Source: CNA/sk