A lot is happening very quickly in the Robotic Process Automation (RPA) market. Only last month, three leading RPA companies raised a total of nearly $1B in investments within a few weeks of each other. In a recent report, Everest Group forecasted nearly doubling of the RPA market in 2019.
The phrase ‘Robotic Process Automation’ may remind us of robots…of some unknown kind. Everything around us is getting more and more automated, even the autonomous cars are already on the roads — with Waymo One just launching their commercial service in Phoenix.
Is a self-driving car a robot? Yes, it is, and the automatic vacuum is also a robot.
Over more than the past 50 years, digital technologies have penetrated more into our day to day lives, and software has been programmed to do more and more things for us. At a fundamental level, RPA aims to do the same in achieving automation through better and smart software and, therefore, is progress.
No — there are no physical robots running around.
It is just another software that will help us automate much of our day to day tasks at the office.
RPA may remind you of excel macros — most of us have used excel at some point in our lives, and ‘macros’ are the most helpful trick — it allows to record repetitive steps and then execute them, automatically.
Instead of operating inside of excel application, RPA or this new ‘macro’, can be used to record almost all user actions or steps on a computer — pretty much every mouse click, script, typed words, etc. that one makes — and thereafter, hit ‘run’ to execute the task automatically every time. Aimed to be used mainly for tasks that contain predictable, rules-based and repetitive steps.
For a quick example, let’s think of how we order pizza online — it follows almost the same steps every time, including —
We can record these steps in an RPA platform, into a ‘macro’ or as they are called a ‘robot’ or simply a ‘bot.’ And then, next time we order pizza, all we need to do is ‘run’ the bot.
We can similarly record almost every rules-based repetitive tasks at the computer — into ‘bots’. Then, instead of executing the task ourselves, we simply need to execute the ‘bots’ to do it for us.
It is similar to the vacuum robot. We still are the masters controlling what it should do and when. The robot does the work for us so that we can sit back and relax or do something else instead.
Thus, relieving us — or, as we are called in this context, ‘the humans’ — of repetitive tasks and freeing our time to do more valuable work or things or contribution to the society.
That’s RPA pretty much! Well, so what’s the big deal?
From an organization perspective, this can bring huge benefits.
Starting in the ’90s, organizations have sought to reduce the burden of repetitive rules-based tasks, through —
Aiming to lower the cost of executing such repetitive tasks and at the same time, freeing employees to focus on more value-adding tasks.
RPA takes another aim at automating such tasks — using software ‘bots’.
RPA proposes a software replacement for the outsourcing, offshoring industry, by automating business processes with software robots. A large proportion of the work carried out by any organization — including the back-office functions, that can be captured into logical process flow — can then be automated using these software robots.
Let’s take a quick spin around an RPA platform to see how easy it is to build one of these bots.
Depending on the provider, the functionality changes a little bit, however, primarily the platforms focus on three stages to achieve automation — capturing the task, combining into a workflow or the ‘bot,’ and then, orchestrating/scheduling when to execute.
Most of the tasks that we carry out on a computer can be captured using the interface, including opening an application such as email or browser or an ERP system, typing the name of a person or account number or a website, searching for a company web page online so on and so forth.
Various aspects of the tasks can be explicitly and contextually defined through layers of additional functionalities offered in a user-friendly interface.
Each action is then laid out in a sequential workflow, defining every aspect of it, thereby, mimicking what a human user would do. For example, the workflow may need to wait for a specific action to be completed, or individual data to be fetched, or go back to a starting or waiting point until something else completes so on and so forth.
We can now see why early adoption is mostly recommended for predictable rules-based tasks — that does not involve complex decision making.
Finally, once the bots are created, tested and functional, the execution can be scheduled using an orchestrator. The execution, as scheduled, can happen anytime, 24X7, based on the schedule decided.
Depending on the level of automation, there can be few alternative implementations, such as
After implementation of RPA, the data captured on a regular basis can be further leveraged using higher levels of analytics.
There are both short and long-term benefits to the organizations. What is painful, cruel and misses the point is when claims are made of such robots over humans for performance. The value rather lies in how easily these bots can be designed, used and integrated by more and more humans into our day to day tasks at the workspace to achieve benefits. The goal is to make ourselves more efficient and freeing our time to do more valuable things — precisely as with the vacuum bot.
Let’s think about a car vs. a self-driving car — enormous amounts of data are captured every second an autonomous vehicle is in operation. This is huge. Through analyzing this data, driving can be made safer and efficient in the long run.
Similarly, for an organization — vast amounts of data, logic, and algorithm from various routine processes remain siloed and locked within unstructured datasphere. Very similar to the skills of the car driver — we accept these as expertise and task-specific knowledge of experienced employees. Now, as these tasks are carried out using bots, structured data can be gathered and used for learning and benefitting from — using higher level analytics in the long run such as Machine Learning or Artificial Intelligence.
Once created, the bots can execute tasks in a fraction of the time. As well, bots can operate 24X7 without breaks, vacation or downtime.
The bots would keep on working as initially designed and intended. They will never make mistakes or be corrupted in some way, or sabotage or harm the system they are in.
A bot is a piece of software and thus endlessly scalable — it can be copied as many times and be used as many times possible, even simultaneously.
With the day to day tasks automated, employees can focus on more fulfilling and challenging tasks that add more value to the organization.
Job losses, which has also been feared of several other previous technologies that promised automation and efficiency gains.
Cost is, of course, another downside. RPA is a solution in itself. However, it is also a starting point for a journey on the path of intelligent automation, and therefore is a strategic and longer-term decision.
Finally, the shortage of human resource trained in RPA development. This is again true for every new technology. The situation is getting better though with all the leading vendors offering training.
The three leading vendors as ranked by The Forrester Wave Q2 2018 report are UiPath, Automation Anywhere and BluePrism. Almost all leading consulting firms are recommending these and other RPA platforms and working with their clients in implementing them.
A quick look at the origins of the leading vendors.
UiPath, founded in 2005, by Daniel Dines and Marius Tirca. Both founders are from Romania, and the company started from Bucharest, Romania and later opened offices in London, New York, Bengaluru, Singapore, and Tokyo. In 2017, the company reported 590 employees and moved its headquarters to New York to be closer to its international customer base, which rose to 700 customers from 100 in 2016.
Blue Prism was co-founded by Alastair Bathgate and David MossIt, is headquartered in the UK, with regional offices in the US and Australia. The company was founded in 2001, in the UK, by a group of process automation experts, considered one of the pioneers of RPA, with the initial goal being to provide automation for back office specific tasks.
Founded initially as Tethys Solutions in San Jose, California by founders Ankur Kothari, Mihir Shukla, Neeti Mehta, and Rushabh Parmani. The company re-named as Automation Anywhere in 2010, operates in more than ten countries focusing primarily on leading companies in select industries.
RPA robots are ‘macro’ like software that works across fragmented applications on computers to provide automation through mimicking human action. Aimed at automating repetitive rules-based workload and putting organizations on a long-term automation journey of integrating with machine learning and artificial intelligence.
There remain worries of robots taking over jobs; similar concerns were experienced in previous automation waves too.
Leslie Willcocks, Professor, London School of Economics, shared in a talk on ‘Robots and the future of work’ —
“For 135 years, we have been trying to convert humans into robots…but now we have technology (RPA) that can reverse this mistake… automation and humans complement one another and they don’t displace each other.”
Thanks for reading. So, what do you think? What are your views on this technology? Is your organization using RPA or plan to use it in the future?
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the article, feel free to like or share, so that others can find it too.