It is only February, but already RPA (Robotic Process Automation) is emerging as one of the key tech trends that will disrupt 2020.
As AI and ML before it, Robotic Process Automation is another technology that is automating both tasks and jobs. Those that were once performed by human personnel.
There has been much apocalyptic soothsaying regarding robotics and how automation will bring about the end of jobs as we know them. However, there is a strong case that these new technologies will work to support rather than supplant our daily work.
Robotic Process Automation is expected to be highly beneficial to business. So much so that research has suggested that 77 % of businesses are likely to use RPA to automate mundane and transactional tasks in the future. A further 56% have stated they believe it will free up staff time and enable them to focus on more strategic work.
What is Robotic Process Automation & how is it different?
Robotic Process Automation is a form of business process technology. It is the use of software to automate and streamline business practice. As such, RPA tools can help businesses improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations more quickly and at a lower cost than other automation approaches. As a result, interest and activity in RPA are at a high. The space is witnessing deployments at enterprise scale. RPA processes are operating across all departments of organisations no matter what their size and structure.
In traditional workflow automation tools, a software developer produces a list of actions to automate a task and interface to the back end system using internal application programming interfaces (APIs) or dedicated scripting languages.
In contrast, RPA systems develop the action list by watching the user perform that task in the application’s graphical user interface (GUI). They then perform the automation by repeating those tasks directly in the GUI. This can lower the barrier to the use of automation in products that might not otherwise feature APIs for this purpose.
RPA systems do have some strong technical similarities to graphical user interface (GUI) testing tools. These testing tools also automate interactions with the GUI and often do so through the repetition of a set of demonstration actions conducted by a user.
RPA tools differ from these systems. Typically, they include features that allow data to be handled between multiple applications. For example, if one was to receive an email containing an invoice, extracting the data from that invoice and then inputting that information into a bookkeeping system.
How does Robotic Process Automation work?
Robotic Process Automation uses software, commonly known as ‘robots’ to capture and interpret existing IT applications. This enables processing, data manipulation and communication across multiple IT systems.
Enterprises can deploy multiple robots. In larger numbers, these operate as virtual workforces. Think back-office processing centres without the human touch.
The deployment and hosting of RPA services align with the metaphor of a software robot with each robotic instance having its own virtual workstation. Known as software scripts, the robot then uses traditional keyboard and mouse controls to take actions and complete automations. The robot does not use a physical screen to operate. Instead, it interprets the screen display electronically; all of these actions take place in a virtual environment.
RPA solutions software can be deployed within weeks – no coding required and without the need to replace existing systems.
What can Robotic Process Automation be used for?
Robotic Process Automation works best for processes which have repeatable, predictable interactions with IT applications. It is also highly effective at tackling tasks which are prone to error, rules-based, involve digital data and those which are time-critical or seasonal.
Typically, these types of task lack the scale or value to warrant automation via core systems transformation. RPA tools can improve the efficiency of these processes and the effectiveness of services without changing the underlying systems.
According to Capgemini, there are three different types of RPA. The type deployed will depend upon what task an organisation requires the ‘bot’ to do.
There are ‘Probots’ which process data, ‘Knowbots’ which gather and store data and ‘Chatbots’ which act as virtual agents to respond to customer queries in real-time.
RPA can be applied company-wide and can be deployed across many organisational departments. Top RPA use cases include;
- Customer Services
- Utilities – RPA can be used to monitor accounts and billing, meter-reading exceptions, customer service queries and debt recovery. Leading utility supplier, Schneider Electric has recently completed an ambitious multivendor rollout of RPA across its customer service, HR, and supply chain divisions.
- Finance – Banks and insurance agencies were two of the first industries to appreciate the value of RPA.
- IT management and services
- Supply chain management – RPA can streamline efficiency in organisations.
- Government – Government agencies are under continuing pressure to modernise their operations. RPA can help by automating the manual processing of data and documents.
- Healthcare – Uses for RPA in healthcare range from handling patient records, claims to customer support, account management, billing, reporting and analytics.
- Retail – High street favourite, John Lewis has automated 40 business processes using 60 software robots with technology from Blue Prism.
The Benefits of Robotic Process Automation
As mentioned, the main benefit is the fact that the bots handle the banal, the mundane and the repetitive. The business can then enjoy cost savings as well as reaping the benefits of all these tasks being completed more quickly.
However, the installation of RPA goes beyond cost-efficiency. Other benefits include decreased cycle times and improved throughput.
RPA limits the possibility of human error, meaning that not only are tasks performed quickly but with improved accuracy. Accuracy can be compromised during repetitive “auto-pilot” style work.
It also can improve compliance. RPA tracks bot performance and stores the data for auditing compliance against regulatory or government requirements. RPA lessens the need for a human touchpoint. As a result, the risks involved with human contact with sensitive data or fraud are reduced.
RPA facilitates digital transformation. Companies can use RPA to automate parts of processes without making wholesale changes to legacy systems. It also negates the need for organisations to invest in expensive or time-consuming back-end integration with existing systems.
These systems are both scalable and flexible. Companies of all sizes can use as much or as little RPA across their businesses as they require. Much of the scalability of these modern solutions can be attributed to the emergence of Visualisation technologies. Without these developments, the scalability of large deployments would be limited by the available capacity to manage physical hardware and by the associated costs.
The shortcomings of Robotic Process Automation.
Like all systems, Robotic Process Automation does have its weaknesses. RPA automates a clearly defined process, but most enterprise doesn’t have clearly defined processes. Some systems have been known to start automating, and either automate the wrong thing or get lost in trying to reverse engineer the process.
One way that business can avoid RPA failure is to identify, optimise and prioritise processes. Business Process advisors will play a critical role in doing so and steer the deployment toward those areas of an organisation that RPA WILL benefit.
Robotic Process Automation; The impact on employment.
Debate on Robotic Process Automation has caused some critics to suggest that RPA deployment will lead to redundancy. As well as negating the need for a human workforce.
According to The Harvard Business Review, most operational groups adopting RPA have been able to do so without the need for downscaling their human personnel. Instead, these employees have been restructured across different areas of the organisation to do more interesting work. In this vein, employee morale has been known to improve. It is felt that the tasks left for them to perform are meaningful and add value to an organisation. One academic study has highlighted that knowledge workers did not feel threatened by automation. Instead, they viewed the bots as colleagues and embraced the change.
Hybrid RPA is one solution that fosters this interdependence between human and bot workers. This particular arm of RPA requires the two to work as a team, passing tasks back and forth.
This same study revealed that, rather than resulting in a lower ‘headcount’, the tech was deployed in such a way as to achieve greater productivity and more work with the same number of people.
There have been more academic studies which support these claims. One LSE paper, speaks of increased worker job satisfaction and intellectual stimulation. It’s claimed that the technology can “take the robot out of the human”, suggesting that robots will take over the mundane and repetitive portions of the daily workload. Workers can enjoy reassignment into interpersonal roles or to concentrate on the remaining, more meaningful elements of the job.
Looking further afield, some critical analysts suggest that the deployment of RPA will have the largest consequences for those workers who benefit from Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). The theory behind this is that RPA will enable larger organisations to “repatriate” processes from offshore locations to localised data centres. It is asserted that this redirection will be to create high-value jobs for skilled process designers in onshore locations but to decrease the available opportunities for low skilled workers offshore
Robotic Process Automation & the economy.
The global labour market looks set to prosper from Robotic Process Automation. Some academic studies have cited that RPA is just one of several emerging tech trends expected to drive a new wave of productivity and efficiency across enterprise.
Entrepreneur David Moss has suggested that digital labour in the form of RPA is likely to revolutionise the cost model of the services industry. He expects it to drive the cost of products and services DOWN. Conversely, service levels, the quality of outcomes and the personalisation of services will all be driven UP.
Japanese business exec, and former CIO of Barclays bank, Koichi Hasegawa has voiced his belief that if we start using bots with empathy digital robots can have a positive effect on society. In an attempt to validate his theory, Hasegawa examples the Japanese insurance firms, Sompo Japan and Aioi. After major natural disaster incidents, both these firms employed bots to speed up the process of insurance pay-outs.
Robotic Process Automation software; The big hitters and the rising stars.
Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism and UiPath are the three leading enterprise RPA vendors.
According to one Gartner report, Automation Anywhere provides a wide array of integration components that users can string together to create automation scripts. In addition to this, they have a cohesive partner ecosystem. Automation Anywhere has recently updated their offering to include a mobile app that can manage bots and more ability to automate unstructured data.
Blue Prism has a focus on RPA for organisations working in regulated industries. In particular, the financial services sector. Blue Prism has a focus on IT-led enterprise deployments. It also has a strong lead on innovation. Perhaps this is best demonstrated by its own AI Lab; Blue Prisms Lab which works to target “document-centric use cases, computer vision and attended [aka assisted RPA] scenarios”.
UIPath offers a well structured and robust system which enables it to support integrations with major products and applications covering BPM, process mining and AI. Its innovative “AI integration fabric” is believed to add the cognitive power of AI to software automated by RPA. According to Forrester Research, UIPath is an ideal solution for developers looking for a Windows-oriented environment.
As with all emerging markets, there are always those looking to disrupt and challenge.
Here are a few of these challengers:
As we mentioned earlier, the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry is widely believed to be a casualty of the surge in RPA. EdgeVerve Systems refutes this! EdgeVerve is a wholly owned subsidiary of (BPO) vendor Infosys Limited and is an example of how the BPO industry has become a major user of the technology. The EdgeVerve software marries expertise with platform features. The product includes frameworks for an automation centre of excellence, governance and process discovery. This triad of features combines in the company’s vision to converge AI and automation.
Without the need to write code, HelpSystems enables companies to streamline IT and business operations by automating tasks and workflows.
In 2016, NICE established an RPA arm of their business. NICE has a focus on enterprise grade solutions which include both attended and unattended RPA workloads. They have a particular reputation for excelling in their ability to automate call centres. NICE’s specialised ‘attended’ bots work to automate workforce management across a range of vertical industries; finance, banking, telecom and manufacturing in particular.
Softomotive; has recently relocated to the UK from Greece and has its focus on small to mid-range businesses. Softomotive has its eye on being the market leader for the midrange sector. The same piece of Forrester research has pinpointed this supplier as the go-to for individuals and companies that want to start small and see immediate returns on their investment.
Combining robotics, AI-powered cognitive automation and workforce orchestration, WorkFusion works to automate business process. Forrester has noted that WorkFusion has the strongest embedded Machine Learning and insights for how AI can enhance RPA and go beyond task automation.
Robotic Process Automation Software; what to look for.
Businesses looking to implement Robotic Process Automation software should consider several features when assessing the software options. Systems should be:
- Scalable – systems should be centrally managed and be able to be scaled as the business grows.
- Fast – enterprises should be able to design and test new robotic processes in just a few hours. The bots should also be able to be optimised to work quickly.
- Reliable – Companies who have robots automated to complete hundreds or even thousands of tasks need to have built-in monitoring and analytic procedures that enable them to monitor the health of their systems.
- Simple – Systems ought to be simple enough that any employee in the business can build and use them to handle various kinds of work. This includes collecting data and turning content into information that enables leaders to make the best business decisions.
- Intelligent – Premium RPA tools should be able to support simple task-based activities, read and write to any data source, and take advantage of more advanced learning to further improve automation
Robotic Process Automation; What’s next?
As with all tech trends, not much remains static for long, and Robotic Process Automation is no different.
RPA 2.0 is often referred to as “Unassisted RPA”, and is the next generation of RPA technologies.
Using Unassisted RPA, processes can be run on a computer without needing any input from a user, freeing that user up to do other work. The software performs on its own, only notifying the user if something goes wrong. However, here the shortfalls of RPA can be witnessed more visibly. For RPA 2.0 to be effective, very clear rules need to be established for systems to run freely.
Unassisted RPA is particularly beneficial for those services that require 24/7 work.
Hyperautomation epitomises the analogy that the whole is more powerful than the sum of its parts. Hyperautomation is the combination of automation tools to deliver work.
It is the application of advanced technologies like RPA, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and process mining to augment workers and automate processes. Hyperautomation procedures are significantly more impactful than traditional automation capabilities.
While some assert RPA kicked off this trend;
“RPA alone is not hyperautomation. Hyperautomation requires a combination of tools to help support replicating pieces of where the human is involved in a task”.
Robotic Process Automation; The Market.
Looking more broadly, the Robotic Process Automation market is fast-moving and is being propelled by the large amounts of venture capital being poured into the field.
In July 2019, Gartner reported that the “The Big Three’’; Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism and UiPath had a combined market value of $11 billion. It was also asserted that the industry can expect to see more acquisitions and mergers; ones that will create an army of mega-vendors. Much of this new wave will likely be comprised of vendors from “adjacent product sectors”, such as intelligent business process management suites and low-code application platforms.
Some areas of industry at threat from RPA have called into question the longevity of RPA, however. Pegasystems are a BPM market leader and are one such critical voice. It has argued that the value of a technology that automates rules-based, existing processes will eventually hit a wall in an age where businesses must transform their business models and underlying processes to succeed.
As we remarked earlier though, RPA is not static, and their assertion works only if RPA stands still….something it is unlikely to do.
Indeed, evidence suggests that RPA’s hypergrowth will continue. The technology is continuously being integrated with machine learning tools that can handle process exceptions, with chatbots that serve customers and with text analytics that make unstructured data actionable. We could be forgiven for assuming that RPA could be limited to large, enterprise companies. This is far from true. These days almost everything can be offered “as a service”; RPA included.
RPA as a service will be offered and will only serve to broaden the market further. “As a service”, the technology can be made affordable to smaller businesses through subscription pricing.
Ignite and Robotic Process Automation
Here at Ignite, we are working with some new and longstanding clients who are transforming their services through the deployment of RPA. Careers in RPA are diverse, interesting and reaching new heights of desirability. Forward-thinking companies are searching for developers, project managers, business analysts, solution architects and consultants within the RPA space…and Ignite is finding them.
Like ML and AI, these positions reward handsomely. RPA salaries across all disciplines range between £65-80K. So if you are an AI professional looking to turn your career toward RPA or you already work within the space, why not reach out to Ignite today.