Business Automation with OpenCart

Posted by Paul on August 14, 2015

What does business automation mean?

Business Automation in its broadest sense could be said to have happened when the first person delegated a task to someone else. It may have been a tribal chief sending a group of hunter gatherers  out on a hunt, or delegating the preparation of tools to be exchanged for food. From his point of view, that task would mostly take care of itself, leaving him free to reap most of the rewards.

With the Industrial Revolution, it became possible to build machines that could do a lot of the work that would otherwise be done by people such as the weaving of clothes and garments. Despite violent protests by the Luddites, this didn't actually reduce the number of jobs, it just changed the nature of work that was available. It was now possible for businesses to produce the same output with far less human input. This freed people to do fewer manual tasks and more knowledge-based, informational tasks.

Of course, it wasn't long after this that primitive computers invited by pioneers such as Charles Babbage and Alan Turing could now automate a lot of the number crunching type tasks that we now take for granted such as arithmetic, accounting, navigation etc. As computers evolved to become more capable, easy to use and ubiquitous, the range of informational tasks that could be automated grew rapidly in what is now called the Informational Revolution.

In this narrower sense, we can define Business Automation as any business process such as making a sale, sending an invoice, taking payment, producing a report, that requires no human input from the business to be completed successfully. One of the easiest things to automate is the sale of downloadable goods – it may be the case that when you purchase a piece of software online (such as one of our OpenCart extensions), no human is aware of the payment or delivery of the digital goods until after they're sent and the business transaction is complete. With physical products (other than the notable exception of vending machines), the last part of the process, picking, packing and shipping, is relatively difficult to automate and eliminate human involvement. That being said, Amazon have already automated most of the picking and packing process with their acquisition of Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics). The next part of the process to automate would be delivery, which could take the form of self-driving vehicles or drones which are already being developed. It depends how far one would want to take the process, but many companies already try and automate customer support (albeit usually simply with FAQs). It's likely in the future that advanced knowledge engines like Apple's Siri or Ok Google will deal with most customer queries. Further into the future, it's likely that computers will make more high-level business decisions rather than just collating numbers and generating reports for CEOs and executives to decide upon.

Why is automation more than just a convenience?

Automation changes everything. It's not just that a business will stay essentially the same, just with lower labour costs. As with many things, a difference that seems to be quantitative (i.e. just a difference in an amount) turns out to be qualitative (i.e. allows a totally different type of business to exist). Just as when the speed of computer processors reached a certain level, the GUI was possible, when a business is automated, totally different things are possible. It's possible for the business to grow in exponential ways that would seem impossible were it not for the fact that these sorts of businesses can be seen all over the world. Automation allows a business to scale in a way that is many orders of magnitude greater that what they would otherwise achieve. Bearing in mind that this isn't really a new concept, it's sad to know that in reality, many businesses are still doing a lot of things by hand that could be done instantly, automatically and without error. If for example you knew that you could sell 10,000 of an item as frictionlessly as you could sell 10, would you not happily spend the extra time marketing that product? Many small businesses are so close to being automated but are being held back by weak links in their chain of processes, human bottlenecks, that could be relatively easy to automate.

What things can be automated in OpenCart?

With an ecommerce site, most processes except picking, packing and shipping can be relatively easily automated. Even marketing can be automated to some extent with Google's Product Listing Ads. Once you've added your products and stock levels to OpenCart, you can connect to Amazon and eBay with OpenBay Pro. When orders happen on the website, Amazon, or eBay, those will be imported in to OpenCart and your stock levels will be reduced accordingly. Notification emails will be send to the customer with updates as the order status changes. You will be able to connect OpenCart to a label printer, either directly or via order management software such as Linnworks so that packing slips/invoices/labels are printed as the orders arrive. These can then be taken down to the warehouse and the orders sent. Back in the office, you can connect to Tradebox which will automatically pull all customer/order/stock level details in to an accounting package such as Sage 50 so that your financial reports and management accounts are always up to date with no manual data entry.

How to get started?

Don't do it all at once - decide to get one aspect automated and look for possible solutions. It could be helpful to write out the entire process of a sale, step-by-step, highlighting any steps that require human intervention – especially manual data entry. You might want to pass that list on to a software developer who will probably spot things that shouldn't be done by hand and could relatively easily be automated.

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