Robots are taking over—but you won't see them rampaging in the streets as if it were a science fiction novel. No, we're talking about automation and specifically robotic process automation (RPA). What is this technology, which has fueled the first stages of a complete digital transformation for modern businesses? These new software tools help humans accomplish more in every workday by taking repetitive tasks off their plate.
How does RPA work? There are many types of RPA in modern business automation frameworks, plus different strategies for developing the right outcomes. Some platforms are very complex, while others empower "citizen developers" to engage directly with the process in RPA.
In this article, we'll cover the following topics about robotic process automation and how it works:
What Is RPA?
A robotic process automation definition is the best place to begin. Understanding what RPA is and how businesses should use it are essential steps for breaking down the implementation process.
Definitions and Usage: An Important Starting Point
Automation is taking tasks out of human hands and placing them in the care of computers. These tasks often follow the same steps every time, involve high volume and relate to the most basic functionalities within the business.
What is RPA in automation? RPA is using robots to automate an entire process—not just one step, but a sequence of steps. That might include downloading a document from an email, copying information from one portion of that document and putting it into an enterprise resource management system. Without RPA, a human would have to handle all those steps—potentially hundreds of times per day.
RPA and the User Interface
The key difference between RPA and some other types of automation is its reliance on the user interface. RPA systems replicate the way a human interacts with screen elements, without a need to "see" the screen. This attribute gives RPA a high level of flexibility for working with a wide variety of programs, from something as basic as Microsoft Excel to ERPs as complex as SAP.
What Technology Does RPA Use?
RPA does not typically rely on artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) but instead follows rules based on programming. Don't worry: You don't need to dust off the old computer science textbooks. Most RPA platforms today use a type of "pseudocode," a system that lets humans build robots with ease, using building blocks that have pre-programmed code under the surface that is ready to run.
Today's RPA tools often include a user-friendly, drag-and-drop interface that allows users to configure a visual representation of the process.
Are Chatbots RPA?
To put it simply: no. Chatbots and RPA are not the same, and chatbots are not a type of RPA. However, these two technologies can work together in a limited capacity.
Why isn't a chatbot an example of robotic automation technology or RPA? Chatbots are machine learning or artificial intelligence. These tools use natural language processing to interpret user input in online conversations, relating it to options and tasks on the back end of the service.
Because a user can input the same request in so many ways, chatbots must handle a much more complex informational environment than an RPA robot. RPA is strictly rules-based and cannot handle the same workflow. However, a chatbot system could use an RPA robot on the back end for writing and reading data in legacy systems based on user requests.
Which Coding Languages Does RPA Require?
RPA does not require any coding languages, such as Python, Ruby, or C—but you will have a much easier time configuring and using RPA if you understand the concepts that are fundamental to programming in these languages. How RPA works without code is simple: Programs use rules-based user interfaces with drag-and-drop functionality, which makes building a robotic process easier and more cost-effective.
That's not to say that programming has no place in RPA. Users can create RPA applications using programming languages such as Python to establish scripts that function similarly. However, modern RPA platforms make the process so easy that most businesses and RPA users will never encounter raw code.
Deploying RPA for your business can be surprisingly easy with the right tools, and it can reveal many additional opportunities for automation. With low- and no-code platforms, it's even easier to put these capabilities into the hands of the employees who know precisely what they'd like to automate.
How Does RPA Work?
How does robotic process automation work? What is the RPA process for a business to evaluate, set up and deploy new software robots? While some answers depend on the platform that a business chooses, we'll look at an overall approach to RPA and which types of RPA you can expect to encounter as you investigate solutions.
Programmable Bots Make Tedious Tasks Easier
How robotic process automation works doesn't have to include coding. As a result, it is easier for a business to train or acquire RPA engineers—and experience with one platform usually translates well to other options.
Is a drag-and-drop interface limited? Not at all: With support for virtually every kind of task that you can imagine, it is simple for a trained engineer to configure an automated workflow in one of these process builders. Every command or rule option has an extensive number of customizable settings to configure to specific needs. When you zero in on highly specific rules to define the process, you activate automation and all its benefits.
Intelligent Bots Handle More Tasks
RPA is a useful tool, but it has limits in some regards. Combining RPA with new and advanced AI tools can lead businesses toward "intelligent" bots with a better ability to handle complex tasks, including exception possibilities. Ultimately, this upgrade can lead to more end-to-end process automation, which frees up even more time among staff.
Front-End vs Back-End RPA
Attended RPA works side-by-side with human counterparts, often in real time, to provide the information that an employee needs to complete their tasks.
Attended RPA is the best solution for tasks that your front-office staff encounters, such as retrieving customer information from different databases quickly. Attended RPA often has more limited use cases and may function not within all business systems but rather on one user or team's workstation. The result is less stress for staff and improved customer service.
Unattended RPA does not require the same level of oversight or collaboration with the software's human counterparts. These solutions operate on a much larger scale to automate back-end processes that require no human intervention. You can configure these bots to run on a schedule or specific system triggers; they all follow rules to execute a process from start to finish.
The Setup Process
How does a business set up RPA? Process discovery is the first step. You can't automate what you can't define. Connecting with the workers who perform tasks every day is essential to learn which manual and repetitive processes could be good candidates for automation. Once you've analyzed these workflows, you can proceed to the engineering and setup process.
At this stage, engineers use their chosen RPA software platform to create the bots that will carry out specific tasks instead of humans. They use the sequence of events defined by actual users to create the most logical and fastest automation workflow. Once they completely engineer the new process, the next phase begins.
Testing and Adjusting RPA Solutions
You should consider RPA pilot programs an essential element of your undertaking. Turning the process over to a robot without extensive testing could lead to worse problems than the ones that you want to fix. Instead, you should carefully test the bot's performance and gather information about how it performs.
Compare the completed number of tasks to those that experienced human workers perform. Make adjustments based on the information that you discover and the feedback that you receive from users, especially for attended RPA applications. Once you’ve finished fine-tuning, you can establish robotic process automation tasks as a regular part of the workday.
Addressing Challenges With RPA Scalability
Scale is a vital consideration with RPA and something businesses should think about early on in their deployment process. A robot that functions well at your current level of doing business might not be able to stand up to increased volume and heavier workloads as the company grows. Likewise, as the scope of what your robots do increases, so too does the risk of losing sight of how much work they actually perform.
Enabling RPA successes at scale requires careful planning, but it also demands clear understandings of your systems. That's where good documentation becomes a must-have. Just like non-automated workflows in your business, you must define the standard operating procedures surrounding your software robots.
Not only will this contribute to identifying and addressing issues during scaling, but it also contributes to a better compliance posture and adherence to principles of good governance. Documenting some robots may require a process similar to the way a programmer documents their own code — manually and by hand. With some solutions, that's easier said than done.
The need for manual documentation often means that this critical task faces a series of delays as employees avoid the undesirable and tedious effort of writing down new SOPs. When opportunities for scale arrive, teams can miss critical insights and even ultimately create new bottlenecks because of robots that haven't scaled appropriately.
There is a better way — and it involves automation, too. With the right tools, you can streamline the documentation process for governance and scale, transforming work that could take hours into something finished in seconds. Consider how a platform such as Kofax RPA simplifies the process of documenting your robotic processes.
The above screenshot shows the Kofax RPA Management Console, which displays a complete list of all currently configured robots. By selecting one of those robots, we can right-click the entry and select "Generate Documentation." When selected, this tool automatically parses the steps used by the robot and outputs them into a visual and descriptive documentation format.
We can see an example of this documentation format in the second screenshot here. It demonstrates the process flow that the robot follows with each of its steps. Clicking on any of these steps provides the user with more detailed information about that step's function and construction.
Finally, we see that you can export this documentation to either a printed hard copy or as a PDF saved locally. Without the need for a human to sit down and transcribe the steps by hand, producing accurate and reliable documentation takes virtually no time at all. The result is a better paper trail for auditing process effectiveness and the opportunity to analyze robots for issues at scale.
The Major Benefits of RPA
What makes these processes worthwhile for businesses? When staff executes it properly, the ease of implementation of RPA makes it a great way to secure advantages for individual employees and processes within a department. The key improvements are in accuracy, cost and resource usage.
Reduce Errors Every Day
Human error is one of the most problematic elements of manual workflows. Even a simple error, such as switching two digits in a purchase order number, could lead to tangible negative financial impacts for the business. Other errors cause delays in critical processes, create poor outcomes for customers and clients, or lead to workflows that no one enjoys using.
RPA changes that. If you train software robots on an operation and adequately maintain them, they are accurate every single time. It's not possible for a program to "misread" a digital readout of a number or copy and paste information into the wrong location. As a result, your business eliminates this costly source of problems in any workflow that RPA touches.
Save Money with Ease
Time is money, and RPA reveals the truth in that statement. With bots handling tasks that humans would rather not, you may quickly discover that you don't need to dedicate so much effort to particular processes. Faster results and fewer errors equal more profitable outcomes for the business, even at a basic level. Shorter cycle times, lowered payroll costs and stronger results all add to RPA’s value.
Save Resources and Use Them Elsewhere
With RPA handling more of the basic tasks that would otherwise consume many employee work hours, your business saves valuable resources. While you could use this opportunity to reduce payroll, you can also redirect the efforts into other areas. An employee who is not engaged with menial work can instead contribute to more valuable workflows.
RPA helps your teams gather critical data about process efficiency. It reveals information about the way that your business works, which may have previously been invisible to you. When you analyze this info and factor it into your strategy, such insights could lead you to the next stages of intelligent automation.
The RPA process is an accessible, flexible and cost-effective solution for businesses in almost every vertical today. The benefits that it affords a company are clear and with a low barrier to entry, it is often the ground-floor option for organizations exploring automation for the first time. However, as you begin to automate more work with robots, something else becomes clear: RPA is only a scratch on the surface.
Much of the true potential of automation lies in applications that delve deeper than RPA. Using software robots is one way to improve productivity and employee morale by offloading tedious efforts. However, as you gather reports and analyze data, RPA could reveal additional bottlenecks.
As a business automates, its staff may realize the need for more advanced automation solutions, including optical character recognition and AI/ML. Implementing these technologies piecemeal won't lead to the same outcomes as a comprehensive approach to intelligent automation.
Kofax, already a leader in this space, continues to innovate towards true hyperautomation with far-reaching capabilities in platforms such as TotalAgility. Learn more about RPA, intelligent automation and the digital transformation of your business.