Businesses are turning to physical automation to streamline processes, but software automation is also gaining popularity. Tom Merritt explains five things to know about robotic process automation.
Automation gets a lot of attention these days; usually, it conjures up images of robots taking over physical duties, but not all automation is physical. Robot process automation (RPA) is a form of business process automation that automates software actions. Here are five things to know about RPA.
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- It learns by watching: Traditionally, you automate software by listing out actions you want performed and using an API or scripting language to automate them. In RPA, the system watches a user perform a task in the GUI and develops an action list to replicate the task.
- RPA is similar to a graphical user interface testing tool: If you’ve seen tools that repeat a set of demonstrations for testing purposes, you kind of have the idea, though RPA systems can handle data like taking timesheets, figuring out what pay should be, and then processing payroll and making bank transfers.
- RPA bots are easier to implement: They don’t require custom software or deep systems integration. That means companies can add capacity for certain tasks at low cost.
- They don’t work well at scale yet, and they don’t always adapt well: A 2017 Deloitte UK study (PDF) found that only 3% of the organizations it studied had scaled RPA to 50 or more robots. Platform changes, or even form changes, can throw them off sometimes.
- Unassisted RPA is the next generation: Also called RPA 2.0, the idea is to use machine learning so that the RPA can do work without needing any input from a human user.
Robotic process automation isn’t a magic solution to a company’s problems, but it is a viable alternative for some tasks and worth considering. Like all automation, the impact on human jobs needs to be taken into account as well, but you’ll never have to awkwardly see them in the break room at least.