Insights 2019: Epicor rolls out AI-powered digital assistant

An artist's impression of a digital assistant or chat bot on a smartphone

Epicor will debut a smart digital assistant powered by Microsoft Azure technology in next month's big releases for its manufacturing and distributor enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools.

The Epicor Virtual Agent (EVA), a smart assistant that handles distribution and manufacturing processes, will be embedded directly into the company's ERP product line from May.

Epicor outlined the new tool during its executive keynote address at its annual customer conference Insights 2019, hosted this year in Las Vegas.

During this announcement, the company's chief product and technology officer Himanshu Palsule insisted Eva wasn't just any regular chat bot. He pointed to the underlying technology powering the virtual agent, provided via Microsoft one year after Epicor struck a fresh partnership with Azure.

This technology includes Microsoft's natural language processing (NLP), integrations with AI and machine learning, as well as overlaps with robotic process automation (RPA) and intelligent data capture.

EVA, Epicor says, can execute tasks and make recommendations within set parameters, and manifests as a visual assistant that can interacted with through text or voice command.

The tool also uses AI to deliver alerts and carry out targeted actions based on a combination of events, historical data, and market statistics. Its functionality also extends to forecasting, and capabilities to auto-adjust production or distribution levels based on customer demand.

When asked by IT Pro what made EVA any different to a wide swathe of similar digital assistants being rolled out across the industry, especially by Amazon and Google, Palsule highlighted EVA's contextualisation.

"Chat bots are not new. For the last ten years you can speak into the phone and get the job done," he said during a press Q&A.

"But it's that the whole idea of situational awareness. So for example, when you're entering a quote, you don't need to know the quote number you don't need to know where it came from, you don't need to know the price.

"We have competitors that spend a lot of money doing things horizontally. They'll build a service bus," he added. They'll say 'you consume this bus and then get a partner to build integrations'.

"Our strategy is within the ERP. And that's why we decided not to keep it as a separate module, it's an extension of the user experience."

Not all customers, however, were immediately convinced by the touted benefits of deploying EVA across the manufacturing floor.

Sistema Plastics Ltd's CTO Greg Heeley, for instance, told IT Pro he would struggle to find a use for Eva in his organisation, and suggested it was more suited to consumer-facing businesses.

"I was trying to visualise where we'd use it around the factory at the moment. I'm not sure. Because we're a discreet manufacturer most of our information is delivered to the user anyway. And people are used to it," said Heeley.

"I'm still a bit uncertain where in our environment we'd use it. But I could see other environments where it'd make a massive difference."

Without commenting on how good the technology powering EVA may be, Heeley added he was unsure the digital assistant would bring any tangible benefits to his organisation for now.

"Taking on tech for tech's sake is not something anyone should do. So for me looking at Eva, it's just picking the right time to be able to actually really investigate it from our perspective," he said.

"At the moment, for our environment, I'm unsure that our staff would take to it that greatly, and I'm not sure what benefit it would deliver in the short term."

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.