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A cartoon-like drawing of a silver robot with a blue background

Robotic Process Automation: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Introduction to Robotic Process Automation

Whenever we picture a utopian future, we think of flying cars, floating cities, and, of course, robots. 

But that future might be nearer than you think. 

The past 70 years have seen a rapid increase in automation. Machines swiftly replaced humans that were wasting their potential on everyday mundane tasks. At the same time, our digital and virtual landscape expanded beyond anyone’s expectations. So, just as we automated our physical world, there was a need to automate the virtual world as well. This led to the advent of robotic process automation. 

What Exactly is Robotic Process Automation?

Robotic process automation (RPA) is an umbrella term for various automation software technologies. These technologies are meant to replicate human interactions within the digital landscape by performing certain transactions, usually pertaining to e-commerce and other business activities. 

Picture this: you work as an accountant for a multinational company. At the end of the day, your boss expects you to submit a record of the company’s invoices. To do this, you must retrieve information from hundreds of invoices and organize it all into one readable document. And you need to do this every day, for as long as you work there.

Not only is this incredibly time-consuming, but it’s also mindless and repetitive. But unlike humans, machines thrive under these repetitive and tedious conditions. Knowing this, you could potentially “train” a robot to perform these tasks and stand in for you. 

Herein lies the inspiration behind RPA. 

The only difference is that these robots don’t have a physical, material form – they’re virtual. Therefore, RPA refers to a virtual workforce designed to assist its human counterpart. 

Now, RPA is employable in many different ways in several different industries. Of course, there are limits to its functions – for now, that is.  

But before we get into that, let’s take a look at the development of and future expectations from robotic process automation. 

The Evolution of Robotic Process Automation

The name “robotic process automation” emerged in the early 2000s. However, its evolution can be traced as far back as the late 1950’s — barely a decade after the development of the first stored-program computer. The idea of automation itself can be traced back to the 18th century. 

To understand the capabilities and scope of RPA, we must look at some of its important preliminaries: artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

If robotic process automation is the hands, eyes, and ears of our metaphorical robot, then AI is the brain. 

The development of AI has been going on since as early as 1955. AI refers to machine-demonstrated intelligence, which allows computers to think and respond as humans do. In this way, AI can interpret data and transform it into natural language, recognize images and speech, and analyze other stimuli — all things which are necessary for robotic process management (RPM).  

Machine Learning 

AI and machine learning go hand-in-hand when it comes to RPA. 

Machine learning refers to a computer’s ability to learn from repetitive patterns and adapt accordingly. Just like how people observe their surroundings and learn how to respond accordingly, machines can do the same. This way, they won’t require specific instructions each time something new comes up. 

However, machines rely on repetitive behavior since it is easier to predict using algorithms. Luckily, these repetitive patterns are exactly what RPA requires. 

Future Prospects of Robotic Process Automation

Robotic process automation has been rapidly evolving. More and more businesses seek to implement at least some form of automation. However, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to the potential of RPA. 

From here, RPA will only begin to grow. A recent Forrester study estimates that more than 40% of enterprises will create state-of-the-art digital workers by combining AI with RPA.

Despite these promising projections, we still have a long way to go before realizing the full potential of RPA. Specifically, companies still need the proper strategy for implementing RPA, which might take some time. 

How is Robotic Process Automation Used Today? 

How Does RPA Work? 

Integrating RPA within your organization’s daily workings is very straightforward. Unless you have a working knowledge of programming, your best bet is to outsource your RPA development to a vendor, such as Blue Prism or UI Path. 

After you select your vendor, they will collaborate with you throughout the four phases of development: 

  • Planning your automation processes
  • Developing automation workflow using the plans
  • Deployment and thorough testing to ensure that there are no defects
  • Support and maintenance to ensure that your RPA remains up to date

In What Ways Can You Use RPA

RPA is useful in certain departments and not so much in others. Similarly, some industries can benefit more from RPA than others. Today, RPA can be used in: 

  • Banking and Financial Services
  • IT Integration Processes
  • Marketing and Sales
  • Customer Relationship Management
  • Insurance Agencies
  • Healthcare
  • Manufacturing

The Good and the Bad

As with all technologies, robotic process automation comes with both benefits and challenges. With how rapidly it’s evolving, however, the drawbacks of RPA will be almost negligible. 

Pros

RPA’s benefits far outweigh its disadvantages: 

  • RPA doesn’t require any coding, programming, or IT knowledge. The only expectation from you is to have a good sense of your requirements and the workings of your company or industry. 
  • RPA far surpasses humans in efficiency. It is faster, has better accuracy, and has lower chances of error. 
  • It allows for employees to focus on more hands-on and interactive tasks, such as building customer relations. 
  • RPA cuts down on the cost of employees, such as recruitment and training costs. 
  • It promises security and eliminates information leakage. 
  • RPA is fully compliant with your organization’s regulations, doing only what you ask and how you expect it to be done. In other words, you are always in control. 

Cons

Here are some disadvantages of RPA to consider: 

  • The initial investment cost of integrating RPA in your daily operation is very high. 
  • RPA essentially replaces human employees, and this job loss can negatively impact the labor market. 
  • In its current form, RPA has its limits. While things like finance and administration benefit a lot from RPA, it has nothing to offer for human resources. This is mainly because machines, no matter how advanced, can never perfectly replicate human interactions. 

Conclusion

Robotic process automation is set to transform the global workforce in the following decade. Despite what the naysayers claim, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, RPA is going to propel us into the technological utopia of our dreams.