A guide to robotic process automation (RPA)

Software robots are on the rise: Here is your complete guide to robotics process automation


Adam Muspratt
07/11/2018

What is RPA (Robotic process automation)?

There is a reason why RPA is receiving a lot of attention lately. It is highly versatile and can be used in virtually every industry to streamline enterprise processes and reduce cost. From automatic payment facilitation to customer onboarding, and generating mass emails and data entry. RPA can do it all. 

Businesses are starting to realise the potential of RPA. According to Forrester, the RPA market will grow substantially in the coming years – from $250 million in 2016 to $2.9 billion by 2021.

But what is RPA?

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a software-based technology utilising software robots to emulate human execution of a business process. This means that it performs the task on a computer, uses the same interface a human worker would, clicks, types, opens applications uses keyboard shortcuts and more.

 It is predominantly used to automate business processes and tasks, resulting in reductions in spending and giving businesses of all size a competitive edge.

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Check out the key takeaways here


But how does it work? And why is it such a disruptive force? There are three core benefits

  • Automatable work - One of the predominant draws of RPA is that it enables automatable work – relieving human workers from repetitive clerical processes that often eat up a large portion of the working day, such as data entry and data manipulation. As a result, RPA can let human workers focus on complex value-adding tasks that elevate a business.

  • Reduction in human error and costs - Foibles that human workers are prone to - particularly during long repetitive tasks – caused by tiredness and boredom are completely mitigated with RPA. This results in work that is more accurate, timely and consistent, ensuring that time and money isn’t lost correcting old work or creating duplicates.

  • It works on existing IT infrastructure and is non-invasive - RPA works alongside existing IT infrastructure; it just needs to be trained on how to use it. This is a major benefit for organisations using legacy systems. RPA interfaces with front-end infrastructure and uses the same graphic user interface (GUI) that human workers would use to complete a task, ensuring that the IT landscape doesn’t have to be changed to accommodate RPA – keeping costs to a minimum.

In a nutshell, RPA is the application of software as a virtual workforce. It is governed by set rules and business logic set by the RPA developers. It can perform complex tasks just as a human worker would, emulating interaction within a GUI, giving developers the opportunity to create a workforce that mimics the same manual path that a human would take at a fraction of the cost.

Differences between RPA and other automation technologies

RPA is still a relatively new technology. The jury is still out on a concrete definition and the key differentiators between various automation technologies in the market. But most experts will agree that the core aspect of RPA is the robotic worker element. Traditional automation aims to automate business processes and workflows, but it typically achieves this on the backend. Software that automates a business processes does not always mean that it is RPA. Here are a few differences that distinguish the two.

  • Since RPA emulates a human worker, it doesn’t interfere with the back-end, making it easier to implement and manage.

  • RPA performs all of its functions via a graphical user interface, meaning that it can be easily integrated into different systems as it does not require application integration.

  • RPA is non-invasive and scalable. It is an extra layer on top of your existing technology stack. It won’t change core systems.

  • To assign a task to a software robot, RPA products mostly use a drag-and-drop interface and visual workflows as opposed to code, making RPA comparatively easier to use.

  • Depending on task complexity, RPA can be deployed quickly.

While RPA holds many advantages over traditional automation, it doesn’t mean that traditional automation is obsolete. For one thing, traditional automation is far better at moving massive amounts of data because it isn’t limited by the speed of the GUI – as would be the case for an RPA product.

SEE ALSO: 4 reasons companies are NOT adopting AI (and how to resolve them)

 The technology is here to stay and we’ll likely see more and more companies incorporating RPA into their work processes. Going into 2019 and beyond, RPA will be a critical component of the enterprise toolkit. The benefits are too numerous, with speed, accuracy, efficiency and reliability and cost savings on offer.

How does an RPA robot work?

Automation technology has been a staple of business for the last decade, but in recent years, RPA technology has reached an impressive level of sophistication while retaining ease-of-use. RPA is no a longer a tool that is solely used to facilitate the automation of simple and repetitive IT tasks. RPA is maturing, and with the convergence of other technologies – such as artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML) – we are beginning to explore new possibilities? 


Unlike other forms of automation, RPA has the intelligence to decide if a process should occur. It can analyse data presented to it and make a decision based on the logic parameters set in place by the developer. In comparison to other forms of automation, RPA does not require system integration.

RPA is a broad field and there are a wide array of technologies in the market that greatly differ from one another. However, most RPA products will comprise of RPA developer tools, a controller and the robot itself.

Here is a rundown of core RPA tools

  • RPA developer tools – RPA developer tools give you the ability to create and run automated tasks. Developer tools can vary from product to product, and often come in the form of easy to use drag-and-drop interfaces as opposed to traditional code-based environments. As such, RPA is suited for non-developers.

  • Recording tools – In addition to drag-and-drop workflows, many RPA products offer the ability for human workers to record a process which can be translated into a workflow for the software robot to follow.

  • Control room – Most RPA products feature an administrative control room. Through the control room interface, you can ascertain the status of all of your robots; see what task they are currently on, what task is next, and so on.

  • Analytics – Many RPA products come with a suite of analytics tools to determine the performance of your robot workforce.

  • The robot – The capabilities of software robots vary from product to product, but many of them utilise aspects associated with horizontal or converging technologies such as optical character recognition (OCR), intelligent character recognition (ICR) screen scraping and artificial intelligence.

    • OCR – Optical character recognition gives software robots the ability to identify the type of document, classify it, recognize characters in the document, and perform an action based on the data. OCR is typically used for structured documents that have identifiable templates, such as banking statements and invoices.

    • ICR – Intelligent character recognition is similar to OCR, but it interprets handwritten and printed characters so they can be recognized by the system. This is important for any document that has a handwritten element, such as address recognition.

    • Screen scraping – Screen scraping entails the extraction of information from websites. It involves processing the HTML of a webpage and converting it into another format. This enables an RPA application to understand the contents of pages – and, in turn, interact with it.

    • Artificial intelligence – Artificial intelligence or cognitive intelligence is a common feature of RPA products. This can entail machine learning that helps the software robot improve decision making over time.

What are the different types of RPA?

RPA is versatile and flexible enough to be used in business of all sizes, from start-ups to enterprise organizations. Here is a rundown of the different types of RPA available in the market.

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  •  Programmable bots - A programmable robot is defined by set rules and instructions. Parameters need to be defined by programmers before the bot can get to work. Ultimately, this involves mapping out a process – step-by-step – which can be very time consuming for more complex tasks

  • Intelligent bots – Bots with artificial intelligence can analyse data – both historical and current – to learn how employees perform a process. The robot will follow your clicks, mouse movements and actions. After a period of time when enough data has been analysed the bot will have enough data to complete the process itself. Intelligent and self-learning bots are better suited to perform processes involving unstructured data and processes that involve fluctuating parameters.

What are the benefits of RPA?

RPA isn’t just great at filling in for repetitive and laborious tasks and manipulating data – there is a range of advantages that your organization can benefit from.

SEE ALSO: RPA and Cognitive Automation: only for big business?

  • Flexibility –RPA is applicable across all industries and organizations, from private enterprise to small startups. It is easily scalable – and can take on any task that has a rule-based element and can be defined by repeatable action.

  •  Cost effective RPA will save your business time and money. With an RPA approach, you will be able to reduce the time and money spent performing inefficient operational processes. Not only that, RPA also costs substantially less than a human work to keep on the books. According to some studies, RPA can reduce operational costs by as much as 50%..

  • Easy to use – When deployed smartly and correctly, RPA can lead to significant productivity enhancement. RPA products often come with a drag and drop GUI meaning that employees will not need additional training in coding or other complex fields. In addition, business often finds that they are able to train a software robot to perform a process faster than a new starter.

  • Efficient and reliable – Robots never take a day off and they can work at all hours of the day. Work that can take humans hours to complete can be finished by a robot within minutes – such as data entry. RPA data has advantages of speed & accuracy over human labour.

    As a result of incorporating RPA into business processes, organizations often find that processes themselves are streamlined. This occurs due to the way RPA works. It is governed by clear rules and procedures – and as a by-product of RPA, you may discover ways of reducing inefficiency by scrapping pointless processes or making existing processes clearer.

  • Accurate –It doesn’t matter how lugubrious a process is, a robot will follow the rules (without complaining) ensuring that you get 100% accurate and reliable results. RPA can offer greater levels of precision and accuracy in comparison to human counterparts. RPA is especially useful in roles that are prone to human error or roles that are difficult, repetitive and long-winded. A robot will be able to perform data entry at all hours of the day – and provided there are no programming errors, the robot will not make the kinds of mistakes that humans make.

  • Improve human productivity – RPA can be an avenue to improved worker efficiency. It achieves this by allowing the worker to focus on value-adding tasks that require complex human thought and benefit the organization.

  • Tighter cyber security -. Despite improvements in cyber security awareness over the last few years, human error is still the weak link in a companies cyber defence. Robots will not fall for common cyber-related attacks such as spear phishing, and social engineering.

What are the challenges to RPA?

Even though RPA is becoming one of the important business technologies, there are some factors to think about that warrants discussion about the future of the technology.

  • How will RPA affect jobs?

    One of the major discussions in the technology world at the moment is how human jobs will be affected by RPA. Critics argue that the widespread elimination of jobs will occur and that working environments will be turned on their head.

    There is no denying that some jobs will be replaced by RPA – the most likely candidate being data entry keyers. However, this would be ignoring the wider picture as there are a wide array of job roles that may emerge as a result of RPA. Historically, new technology has almost always resulted in the creation of more jobs, and the widespread incorporation of RPA will be no different. For example, RPA engineering and RPA developers are roles that wouldn't exist without the technology. 

    RPA won’t just create new jobs. It also has the ability to enhance current jobs, by providing human workers with the necessary tools to focus on high-value tasks.

SEE ALSO: 5 Lessons to Learn from Business Process Automation Leaders

  •  Is RPA expensive?

    RPA is often cheaper to compliment than traditional automation thanks to its ability to work alongside IT infrastructure that is already in place. With RPA, business leaders won’t have to endure headaches thinking about the costs of infrastructure remodelling, outsourcing or offshore/onshore manual processing.

  • Is RPA a cyber security risk?

    We touched upon the benefits that RPA can bring to cyber security, but what about the risks? Like many new technologies, the potential downsides often get overlooked in comparison to the excitement generated by the benefits. Like many technologies, the misuse of data – the kind of sensitive data software robots are privy to – is a major security concern. Issues may come in the form of rouge developers who programmed software robots maliciously, malware, Trojans, and hackers.

    Diligent companies will incorporate additional cyber security measures, which may entail data encryption and role-based access to confidential data.

How to use RPA for your business?

Businesses can leverage RPA in a multitude of different ways. Flexible and easy to implement, some business may find that they use it in a way that is unique to their organization. Determining what processes should be automated is a key strategic point. There is no point in automating a process just for the sake of it.

Want to read more guides? Check out The PEX guide to business process management

While RPA is great at driving operational excellence, some processes are more viable for automation than others. It is always a good practice to roll out RPA slowly to mitigate teething issues that often come with technology implementation. The most viable candidates for automation tend to be processes that are simple, repetitive and easy to define. These processes will likely be rule-based and comprised of easily definable structured data.

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Questions to ask yourself before automating a process

  • Can employee time be better spent elsewhere? –If the process is heavily dependent on employee involvement and revolves around standardized data that is highly definable and consistent – and often impacted only by quantity – it can be a suitable candidate for RPA giving employees more freedom to spend on more meaningful activities.

  • Are processes being delayed by opening and closing times? – If you routinely find that your company has outstanding processes by the end of the day that aren’t actioned until the morning, consider an RPA solution. Robotic workers stay on the job 24/7, making them great for high volume and lengthy tasks.

  • Is the process being outsourced? – If a repetitive process is being outsourced, it can almost certainly be automated – often at a fraction of the price.

  • Have you completed an RPA pilot? – Once your business becomes familiar with RPA and the different ways in which it can be leveraged – and its limits – the automation of more complex processes can be considered, such as the automation and data that is unstructured and non-standardized.

  • Is the process prone to error, rule-based, repetitive or time-sensitive? – Processes that fall into this category are often not critical enough to incorporate automation through core systems - a practice that can an be costly to implement. RPA tools offer a quick and inexpensive alternative, giving business leaders the opportunity to promote efficiency without changing any core systems.

  • RPA certification - Consider RPA training for your organisation. There are a wide array of companies that offer online and offline training sessions from experts in the field, giving your organisation a deeper insight into RPA implementation specifically for your business. 

The most common RPA uses are different sectors.

RPA can be feasibly applied to a range of different business processes. From banking to manufacturing, here are some examples of how different industries are utilizing RPA to improve their efficiency.

General 

  • Data entry - This is one of the most common uses for RPA. It can make short work of routine clerical tasks in a fraction of the time it takes a human and is able to input data faster and more reliably than a human can.

  • RPA extractor – RPA can utilise optical recognition technology to scan and understand data in any format and extract relevant data into another system. For example, it has the ability to pull data from a PDF and key the relevant data into another file format.

  • Automating tasks that require no decision making – A business process may involve multiple steps that do not need complex human thought. RPA can automate these processes to save significant time. Generation of mass emails – RPA can be used to generate mass emails via available data from multiple systems.

Banking

  •  Card processing – The banking sector is always on the looking for cost reduction strategies. One major way that banks are using RPA is card processing. In the past, it could take the human worker weeks to gather documents, make credit checks, perform a background check and ultimately make a decision. RPA has streamlined the process and it now takes a matter of days.

Financial services

  •  Investment portfolios – RPA can be used to manage investment portfolios. Today, software robots are giving clients real time intelligence and advice about current market conditions.

Human resources

  •  Payroll – Payroll involves huge sums of data, is highly repetitive and requires to be sent out in a timely fashion, making it perfectly suited for RPA.

Insurance

  • Claims processing – Claims insurance is the heart of insurance and requires speed and accuracy. From incorrect keying to disparate input media, anything and everything can slow down claims processing. This makes it a great candidate for RPA which can convert files, abide by regulations, and key data flawlessly.

Sales

  • Updating a CRM – Updating CRM’s can be a drain on time and money. This is especially detrimental in the sales world where time is of the essence.

Manufacturing

  • Bills of material generation – An important document for production, but a frequent cause of headaches. RPA eliminates the need to endlessly key data into spreadsheets which are prone to human error. This results in stronger supply chains and efficient production processes.

What will the future of RPA look like?

More and more companies are planning to implement RPA going into 2019. As it becomes more widespread the uses for RPA will become more varied as well. In the future, We are already seeing signs that RPA is being used beyond data input. It can be used for other time-consuming processes such as email recognition and file conversion.RPA will incorporate machine learning and cognitive algorithms to apply increasingly accurate judgement and learn how to perform processes at a faster rate. It will also likely reduce outsourcing as RPA becomes a cheaper solution.

 

Using RPA tools? Check out the video below for additional info!